UN official: State of Syrian refugee camp ‘beyond inhumane’

Palestinian fighters clashed with Islamic State militants in a heavily contested Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital on Monday as a United Nations official described the situation in the embattled camp as “beyond inhumane.”

BEIRUT — Palestinian fighters clashed with Islamic State militants in a heavily contested Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital on Monday as a United Nations official described the situation in the embattled camp as “beyond inhumane.”

The fighting in Yarmouk began Wednesday after the Islamic State group muscled into the camp, marking the extremists’ deepest foray yet into Damascus. The heavy clashes that have raged since then have added yet another layer of misery for the nearly 18,000 Yarmouk residents who have already endured desperate conditions marked by a lack of basic food, medicine and water.

The deteriorating situation prompted the UN Security Council to call an emergency meeting Monday to discuss Yarmouk. The Security Council was scheduled to receive a closed-door videoconference briefing by the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Pierre Krahenbuhl.

After heavy fighting on Sunday, sporadic clashes broke out on Monday in Yarmouk, according to Hatem al-Dimashqi, an activist based in an area just south of Damascus, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Both al-Dimashqi and the Observatory said Syrian government aircraft have been shelling the camp and dropping barrel bombs since Sunday.

The fighting inside the camp has largely pitted the Islamic State group against Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, a Palestinian faction opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman estimated that the Islamic State group now controls as much as 90 per cent of Yarmouk, slowly squeezing out Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.

Palestinian officials and Syrian activists say the Islamic State militants fighting in Yarmouk were working with rivals from the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The two groups have fought bloody battles against each other in other parts of Syria, but appear to be co-operating in the attack on Yarmouk.

Nusra said in a statement it is taking a neutral stance in the camp.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees known as UNRWA, told The Associated Press in Barcelona late Sunday that the agency has not been able to send any food or convoys into the camp since the fighting started.

“That means that there is no food, there is no water and there is very little medicine,” he said. “The situation in the camp is beyond inhumane. People are holed up in their houses, there is fighting going on in the streets. There are reports of … bombardments. This has to stop and civilians must be evacuated.”

He said 93 people have been evacuated from the camp so far.

The United Nations says around 18,000 civilians, including a large number of children, are trapped in Yarmouk. The camp has been under government siege for nearly two years, leading to starvation and illnesses. The camp also has witnessed several rounds of ferocious and deadly fighting between government forces and anti-Assad militants.

“Things were bad and things got worse when the fighting engulfed the camp,” Gunness said.

Also Monday, gunmen kidnapped as many as 300 Kurds late Sunday and early Monday west of the city of Aleppo, pulling them from their vehicles at checkpoints, a Kurdish official and the Observatory said.

All of the captives were released later Monday after authorities in the Kurdish-controlled area of Afrin near the Turkish border freed three Islamic rebel fighters who were arrested last week, according to the Observatory and Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

Such tit-for-tat kidnappings have become common in the chaos of Syria’s civil war.

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