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UN Leader Warns of Civilian Tragedy in Syrian Refugee Camp

Entrance to Yarmouk camp in Syria


John Burger - published on 04/09/15

Palestinian official announces agreement Assad government to forcibly expel ISIS militants

A senior Palestinian official said Thursday that an agreement has been reached with the Syrian government to use military force to expel Islamic State militants from an embattled Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, the Associated Press reported. 

Yarmouk is the largely Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Syria’s capital, where over the past two weeks fierce fighting has erupted between armed groups, putting thousands of people in harm’s way, AP said. The Islamic State’s control of the camp puts it only a few miles from Assad’s seat of power.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the situation in a press conference at UN headquarters in New York Thursday afternoon. 

"In the horror that is Syria, the Yarmouk refugee camp is the deepest circle of hell," he said. "After more than two years of a merciless siege, 18,000 Palestine refugees and Syrians are now being held hostage by Da’esh and other extremist militants."

Da’esh is an Arabic term for the Islamic State. 

Ban said the refugee camp is "beginning to resemble a death camp" and that residents, including 3,500 children, are "being turned into human shields."

"They face a double-edged sword – armed elements inside the camp, and government forces outside," he said. "We are now hearing worrying reports of a massive assault on the camp and all civilians in it. This would be yet one more outrageous war crime for which those responsible must be held accountable."

He called for an end to hostilities, access to the camp in order to provide humanitarian assistance, and safe passage for civilians who wish to leave.

Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General at the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), told the Security Council Monday the current escalation is “more desperate than ever” and that currently, “it’s simply too dangerous to access Yarmouk.”

According to the AP report, ISIS fighters overran much of the camp last week, marking the extremists’ deepest foray yet into the Syrian capital. The incursion is the latest trial for Yarmouk and its estimated 18,000 remaining residents, who have already survived a devastating two-year government siege, starvation and disease.

"We have agreed with the Syrian government on ways to force the terrorist group IS out of the Yarmouk refugee camp," Ahmad Majdalani, the labor minister in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, told the Voice of Palestine Radio. "The military solution is the only one to force these terrorists out of the camp."

Yarmouk was the main refugee camp established in Syria for Palestinians who fled the 1948 war that attended Israel’s creation. Before the Syrian civil war it was a sprawling, built-up neighborhood that was home to tens of thousands of Palestinians and Syrians alike. Factions that support Syrian President Bashar Assad and groups that oppose him now call the camp home.

But the fighting in Yarmouk has become so bad that the International Committee of the Red Cross joined a growing chorus of aid groups calling for immediate access to the camp. The ICRC said emergency medical care is "urgently needed" for the estimated 18,000 people still inside the camp, and warned that humanitarian needs "are growing by the day." It called on the armed factions to allow the "immediate and unimpeded passage" of humanitarian aid and to permit civilians who wish to flee to be able to do so.

ISIS has "tried to used the camp as a launching pad to expand their scope of clashes and their terror activities inside and outside the camp," Ahmad Majdalani, a minister in the Western-backed Palestinian Authority who was sent to Damascus by the PLO leadership to discuss the crisis with the government, told Reuters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict from Britain, has said Syrian air force jets had been waging a bombing campaign on militant hideouts in the camp almost daily since Islamic State fighters infiltrated from the adjacent, rebel-held Hajar al Aswad neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the operator of Caritas Syria, Safouh Al-Mosleh, was killed Tuesday in a bombing in Farhat square, where Greek-Catholic, Armenian and Maronite cathedrals are concentrated. The neighborhood, characterized by a strong Christian presence, was recently hit by heavy bombing by rebel groups who continue to fight against the regime of Assad.

According to Caritas, Al-Mosleh’s family had already been evacuated, and he had returned home to check that everything was alright when the house was hit by artillery shells. Al-Mosleh, who was about 40 and belonged to the Greek Catholic community, had started working for Caritas more than a year ago.

According to information provided by Caritas Syria and sent to Agenzia Fides, the intensity of the conflict in Syria’s north is increasing daily, after the jihadist militias conquered the city of Idlib, located not far from the road that links Aleppo to Damascus. Aleppo is now threatened by both the jihadists of the Islamic State and Al Nusra Front, linked to al-Qaida. So far, in that part of Syria, the two jihadist entities continue to fight each other. 

Islamist MilitantsSyriaUnited Nations
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