Talks afoot to remove warring sides from Damascus camp

Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp

Talks were under way on Wednesday aimed at removing both rebel and pro-government fighters from a Damascus Palestinian refugee camp after deadly clashes, a Palestinian relief official told AFP.

"Palestinian organizations that have remained neutral are overseeing talks between the [rebel] Free Syrian Army and Syrian troops, to keep the camp out of the conflict," the relief official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"So far, the talks have been unsuccessful," he added.

Under discussion is a plan to put the Yarmuk refugee camp in the south of the Syrian capital under the control of "neutral" Palestinian officials.

At least half of the camp's population of more than 112,000 have fled in recent days in the face of deadly clashes between pro- and anti-Damascus groups.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas on Wednesday urged the international community to help Palestinian refugees fleeing the fighting to enter the West Bank or Gaza.

Palestinians have been divided over the 21-month uprising against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is from the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam but whose regime has long given shelter to hardline militant factions.

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, there are 486,000 Palestine refugees living in nine official and three unofficial camps across Syria.

"Yarmuk camp is a place of asylum, a refuge for Palestinians, and no parties to the conflict should be allowed in," another participant in the talks told AFP.

"The Syrian army has deployed additional reinforcements to the edges of Yarmuk camp, as it prepares to enter, while troops have blocked the roads... in order to safeguard the security of citizens," pro-regime daily Al-Watan reported.

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

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

Violence has since raged in the camp.

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

"The camp is now nearly empty of its residents," an activist who identified himself as Rasim told AFP via the Internet.

"It's a real humanitarian catastrophe," said another resident.

Many thousands of Palestinians fleeing Yarmuk have been unable to afford emergency accommodation. They have instead slept in the open in Damascus parks and squares.

According to the Lebanese authorities, some 2,200 Palestinians have crossed the border from Syria since Saturday.

Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp. (AFP/Louai Beshara)

The camp is now nearly empty of its residents.