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AFP

Palestinians make timid return to Damascus refugee camp

Hundreds of Palestinians made a cautious return on Thursday to the Syrian capital's Yarmuk refugee camp that has been a battleground between pro- and anti-regime forces, residents told AFP.

"Many of them want to return home rather than sleep outside, especially because of the heavy rains, and others have come to get their possessions because they're sure the fighting will continue," said an aid worker in the camp.

The soldiers manning entrances to the camp "are not allowing through cars and telling people it's at their own risk if they go in," he said amid sporadic gunfire early on Thursday.

A resident who left the camp in the south of the Syrian capital said most fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army, who had been deployed in their thousands days earlier, had pulled out of Yarmuk.

Talks were held on Wednesday aimed at removing both rebel and pro-government fighters, but without any immediate success, a Palestinian relief official said on condition of anonymity.

In Geneva, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees said as many as 100,000 Palestinians may have fled Yarmuk over the past few days because of fighting.

"People are still leaving in droves," UNRWA Deputy Chief of Staff Lisa Gilliam told AFP, adding around two thirds of Yarmuk's 150,000 residents appeared to have left the camp.

Fresh fighting on Wednesday on Yarmuk's outskirts killed a civilian and four members of the pro-regime Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Palestinians have been divided over the 21-month uprising against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Those fleeing Yarmuk were seeking shelter in other parts of Damascus or elsewhere in Syria, and a growing number was crossing the border into Lebanon, Gilliam said.

Until last weekend, Yarmuk had provided refuge for hundreds of Syrian families forced to flee their strife-torn towns and cities.

But on Sunday, warplanes launched the first air strike on Yarmuk since the start of Syria's conflict, killing at least eight civilians.

Backed by anti-regime Palestinian fighters, rebels have expelled most pro-Assad fighters from Yarmuk, the Observatory said.

The soldiers manning entrances to the camp "are not allowing through cars and telling people it's at their own risk if they go in," he said amid sporadic gunfire early on Thursday.