Last updated: 30 August, 2017

‘Military operation needed’ in Yarmuk camp, says Syrian official

A military operation is necessary to expel Islamic State jihadists from the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in south Damascus, Syria's reconciliation minister said on Wednesday.

Syria said Wednesday a military operation was needed to expel jihadists who have overrun large parts of a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, trapping thousands of civilians inside.

The Islamic State group’s advances in the Yarmuk camp have sparked international concern for the civilians, who have already endured repeated bombardment and an army siege of more than 18 months.

The European Union has announced additional aid for residents of the camp, saying their suffering was reaching “intolerable levels” and the UN Security Council has urged a humanitarian corridor into the district.

Syria’s Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar on Wednesday said the crisis required a military operation.

“The priority now is to expel and defeat militants and terrorists in the camp,” he said, after meeting Palestine Liberation Organisation official Ahmed Majdalani, who arrived Tuesday from Ramallah.

“Under the present circumstances, a military solution is necessary,” Haidar said.

He did not spell out when a military operation might begin or how it would be waged, but suggested that Syrian troops could be involved.

“The Syrian state will decide whether the battle requires it,” he said.

– Concern for residents –

Amnesty International, however, said Wednesday that thousands of lives are already being put at risk by intensified regime shelling and aerial bombardment since the IS advance.

“Civilians have also come under sniper fire and been caught up in clashes between armed groups,” it said. “For civilians still trapped in Yarmuk life is an agonising struggle for survival.”

IS forces attacked Yarmuk on April 1 and have seized control of large parts of the camp, executing Palestinian fighters.

The Syrian government and residents of the capital have been rattled by the presence of IS militants just a few kilometres (miles) from the heart of Damascus.

Once a thriving district that was home to some 160,000 Syrian and Palestinian residents, Yarmuk has been devastated by violence since late 2012.

The Syrian army imposed a tight siege on the camp that reportedly led to deaths because of shortages of food and medicines.

An agreement between rebels and the government, backed by Palestinian factions in the camp, was reached last year and led to an easing of the siege, although humanitarian access remained limited.

Majdalani, speaking after meeting Haidar, said the Palestinian leadership would back whatever measures the Syrian government decided on.

“It is more and more difficult to talk about a political solution in the camp,” he said.

But it remains unclear whether an operation will be accepted by all Palestinian factions, including the Hamas-linked Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, which has led the fight against IS in Yarmuk.

A range of Palestinian factions, including Hamas representatives, were to meet in Damascus on Wednesday evening to discuss the situation.

Inside the camp, concern has grown for the fate of thousands of residents, with the EU saying it would provide 2.5 million euros ($2.7 million) in emergency funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA.

“The suffering of civilians in Yarmuk camp is reaching intolerable levels,” EU aid commissioner Christos Stylianides said Tuesday.

– IS bomb kills rebels –

Elsewhere in Syria, the toll in two car bombings late Tuesday in northern Aleppo province rose to 32, a monitor said, accusing IS of being behind the attacks.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group, said the attacks appeared to be a bid by IS jihadists to expand their reach in Aleppo.

One bomb hit a base in the village of Hawar Kilis, near the Turkish border, killing at least 23 rebels, while the second targeted a joint rebel office in the town of Marea and killed nine.

The Observatory said three commanders, including one from the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, were killed in the Marea blast.

Al-Nusra confirmed the death of its local commander in the town and accused IS of the bombing.

Despite sharing a similar ideology, Al-Nusra and IS are at odds in fronts across most of Syria.

More than 215,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests, which spiralled into war after a regime crackdown.