Syria: Armed Opposition Takes Yarmouk Refugee Camp

Palestinians carry the coffin of Zakaria Abu al-Hassan during his funeral in al-Yarmouk camp near Damascus 6 June 2011. (Photo: Reuters - Khaled al-Hariri )

By: Anas Zarzar, Marah Mashi

Published Monday, December 17, 2012

After fierce battles on Sunday, 16 December 2012, Palestinian neutrality in the Syrian crisis collapsed completely as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist fighters overran most of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

Damascus – The battle over the Yarmouk refugee camp between the Free Syrian Army and Islamists, on one side, and the Syrian security forces and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), on the other, intensified over the past few days.

Most of the news and images coming out of the camp confirm that the two sides engaged in fierce confrontations, using all kinds of weaponry and causing widespread damage to residential areas and dozens of deaths and injuries.

The situation is particularly bad around the Abdul-Qader al-Husseini mosque in the center of the camp, which was directly struck by a rocket Sunday morning, killing and maiming a large number of Syrian and Palestinian civilians who had taken refuge there.

There were, however, conflicting media reports as to who was behind the attack on the mosque.

The past few days saw rockets raining down on the camp, often followed by the sirens of ambulances en route to the scene to collect the dead and injured. During the short lulls in violence, residents rushed out to stock up on supplies before the situation deteriorated again.

On Saturday night, the fighting reached its peak as the armed opposition launched a three-pronged attack to take the camp.

The pro-regime PFLP-GC fighters were overwhelmed and suffered tremendous losses as they were unable to evacuate their wounded due to opposition snipers posted on the roofs.

By morning, cars carrying opposition fighters and Palestinians waving the rebel flag could be seen driving around many of the camp’s inner neighborhoods. A negotiated ceasefire was quickly broken as opposition fighters moved to take the camp’s municipality building, the last remaining stronghold held by pro-regime forces.

News of the battles overshadowed accurate figures of the number of casualties and the large-scale destruction of the camp as a result of the fighting, which prompted a mass exodus of local residents to safer areas.

A prominent leader of the PFLP-GC told Al-Akhbar that the “situation is extremely dangerous. The FSA has taken over large parts of the camp, including areas that once belonged to the General Command, forcing many of our fighters to retreat.”

He added that the living conditions in the camp have completely collapsed, without any possibility of sending in supplies and medical aid, not to mention that the whole area’s electricity has been cut.

“If the camp falls under the control of the FSA and the jihadi Islamists,” he said, “it will become a launching pad for military operations, and it is the camp residents who will pay a heavy price.”

He estimates that somewhere around 1.5 million Palestinians and Syrians were living in the camp before the outbreak of the latest round of fighting, many of whom had only recently taken refuge there.

Unconfirmed reports circulated on Sunday that the general secretary of the PFLP-GC Ahmad Jibril had fled the camp to the coastal town of Tartous. There were also rumors that a split had occurred within the group during the fighting.

PFLP-GC political bureau member Hussam Arafat, however, confirmed that Jibril is still in Damascus and that only a limited numbers of rank-and-file fighters had defected to the other side.

In the meantime, humanitarian organizations, along with UNRWA, are sounding the alarm and calling for help to deal with the 3 million people they estimate were impacted by the fighting in and around the camp.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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