Thousands of Palestinians return to Yarmuk

Yarmuk camp refugees

Thousands of Palestinians returned Thursday to the Syrian capital's Yarmuk refugee camp, despite sporadic gunfire, after fleeing battles between between pro- and anti-regime forces, residents said.

"Starting 6 am, thousands of Palestinians walked across army checkpoints at the entrance to the camp to return home, rather than sleep outside in the cold and under the rain," an aid worker in the camp 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.

According to one resident and amateur video posted online, refugees sang traditional Palestinian songs, and chanted: "We are returning to Yarmuk camp.”

State news agency SANA said Palestinians held "demonstrations demanding the departure of terrorist groups," using the regime's term for rebel fighters.

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

"There are a couple of fighters in each alley way, but they're drinking tea and smoking the nargileh [water-pipe]," the resident told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Contradictory information has emerged over whether or not Palestinian factions reached an agreement.

"A preliminary agreement was reached last night by all parties in Damascus to ensure the withdrawal of pro- and anti-regime fighters," Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed told Voice of Palestine radio on Thursday.

But pro-regime Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command spokesman Anwar Raja said no such agreement had been reached.

"There has only been a popular decision among Palestinians to return, because they prefer to die in the camp than to be displaced or exiled again," Raja told AFP.

Raja's reference alluded to the Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic) suffered by Palestinians displaced by the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Talks began on Wednesday to expel fighters from Yarmuk, and to ensure the camp's neutrality in the raging Syrian conflict, according to an aid worker.

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

Some 2,800 have crossed the border into Syria's neighbor Lebanon, according to the Lebanese General Security agency.

In the northern Lebanese camps of Baddawi and Nahr al-Bared, dozens of refugees who had fled Yarmuk held protests at the entrances to UNRWA offices on Thursday, demanding shelter and food, an AFP journalist said.

International peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi may in his next visit to Syria put forward "ideas to keep the Palestinian camps out of the Syrian crisis," said Palestinian officials quoted by Syrian pro-regime daily Al-Watan.

No date has yet been announced for Brahimi's next visit.

His proposals may involve "the withdrawal of armed men from Yarmuk camp, provided that neither the Syrian army nor the [pro-regime] popular committees return," said Al-Watan.

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

Until last weekend, Yarmuk had provided refuge for hundreds of Syrian families forced to flee their embattled districts 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.

Refugees who fled violence in the Yarmuk Palestinian camp in Damascus. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

There are a couple of fighters in each alley way, but they're drinking tea and smoking the nargileh.