Intense negotiations were under way Wednesday aimed at removing both rebel and pro-government fighters from the Yarmouk camp, the largest of Syria’s Palestinian refugee camps, to end days of intense clashes and government airstrikes, Beirut-based Palestinian and rebel sources in the camp told The Daily Star.
The clashes, which have pitted fighters aligned with the pro-regime Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine against rebel opposition fighters, have raised fears of a factional conflagration of Syria’s civil war, just 3 km south of the city center.
At least half of the camp’s population of more than 112,000 have fled the camp following the clashes which culminated in strikes by Syrian government warplanes Sunday and Tuesday.
Intense fighting continued Monday and Tuesday, with rebels claiming to have taken control of the camp and driven out PFLP-GC leader, Ahmad Jibril, Monday night.
Thousands of refugees were seeking shelter in the streets and gardens of neighboring suburbs, while others poured across the border into Lebanon.
With the Syrian army poised to enter the camp Wednesday, fears were mounting of a ground assault aimed at obliterating remaining rebels.
Talks with factional leadership and religious communities were under way Wednesday, aimed at negotiating the withdrawal of both forces, rebels inside the camp and Palestinian sources in Beirut told The Daily Star.
“We fear for the camp because if the rebels stay, we expect the army to bomb Yarmouk heavily,” a Palestinian source in Beirut said.
A Palestinian resident familiar with talks inside Yarmouk said a campaign had been launched aimed at encouraging fleeing residents to return in order to offset any government assault.
A preliminary deal was reached, the source said, in talks late Tuesday at the Palestinian Embassy, under which the Syrian army would withdraw from the camp perimeter and the Free Army would withdraw from the camp to hand authority over to the Palestine Liberation authority and Islamic Jihad.
Free Syrian Army leadership announced their withdrawal from the camp in a video uploaded to YouTube Wednesday, declaring Yarmouk a “safe zone” and calling for those who had left to return home.
“After the armed cells – affiliated with the regime and its allies such as Ahmad Jibril – have been eradicated with God’s help, and in order to protect the unity of Syrian-Palestinian blood, and out of our appreciation for the Palestinian people’s suffering in Syria, we are … handing over Yarmouk camp’s security to our Palestinian brothers,” a Free Syrian Army officer read from a statement in the clip.
However, the Beirut-based source said the deal had not been cinched and residents reported that the army was still stationed on the camp’s perimeter late Wednesday.
“Yarmouk 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.
Palestinians have been divided over the 22-month uprising against President Bashar Assad and both government and rebel forces have enlisted and armed divided factions. While sporadic deadly clashes have occurred, Yarmouk has remained mostly a place of refuge for refugees fleeing intensive government assaults against rebel forces in neighboring Tadamon and Midan.
It remains unclear what prompted the deadly spike in violence Saturday and Sunday, although multiple reports from residents inside Yarmouk said Free Syrian Army rebels had embarked on attempts to take greater control of the city, looting and burning houses along the way. Others said clashes had broken out between rebel groups, including the jihadist group Nusra Front, blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the United States last week.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Monday the Nusra Front had entered the camp and attacked a hospital, warning “Palestinian brothers” not to “harbor or assist … terrorist groups.”
“The Syrian army has deployed additional reinforcements to the edges of Yarmouk 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.
One resident opposed to Assad admitted “Some of the FSA have been doing really stupid things.” He said the camp had been devastated by the bombings, adding that “nearly everyone has left.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday urged the international community to help Palestinian refugees fleeing the fighting to enter the West Bank or Gaza while U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called on Israel to facilitate their entry.
Any movement of refugees into the West Bank would need the consent of Israel. Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Israel had not yet received a formal proposal for refugees to enter the Palestine.
He claimed refugees fleeing violence in Syria were not interested in seeking shelter in Israel or the West Bank.
“I don’t know how relevant Ban Ki-moon’s call to open our borders is to us. Even if we open our borders, no one would come across it,” Hirschson said.
As the crisis unfolded, Syrian government forces continued on a broad offensive against rebels in the suburbs of Damascus, the state media said Wednesday.
The state-run SANA news agency said troops had killed “scores of terrorists” – the government term for the rebels fighting to topple Assad.
The southern suburbs have remained opposition strongholds since the uprising started in March 2011 and the rebels have recently made significant advances in the area, capturing air bases and military installations.
SANA said Wednesday’s fighting was taking place in the capital’s southern outskirts of Daraya, Harasta, Douma and Hajar Aswad, an area neighboring Yarmouk.
Most of the fighting Wednesday was concentrated on surrounding districts outside the camp, the opposition Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said the rebels took control of large parts of the camp after resistance from the PFLP-GC gunmen ceased that morning. The group relies on reports from activists on the ground.
The battle to bring down the Assad regime has forced some 3 million Syrians from their homes, according to a new U.N. estimate. – With agencies