DAMASCUS // Palestinian factions in Syria yesterday called for a ceasefire after fighting flared at a refugee camp in the capital, highlighting a split among Palestinians as the civil war intensifies.
The Yarmouk camp has been the scene of heavy clashes in the past, but the battles subsided last month after Syrian rebels fighting to topple Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, battled loyalists there to a standstill.
In yesterday's fighting, five people were killed on Yarmouk Street, four of them when a shell exploded and the fifth in sniper fire, according to The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights that relies on reports from activists on the ground.
The group said intense clashes were taking place on the edges of the camp, where the Syrian troops are positioned, and the nearby Hajar Aswad district.
In a statement, representatives of 14 Damascus-based Palestinian factions called for a ceasefire and a halt to all military operations to enable medical teams and food supply lorries to enter the camp. They urged gunmen to withdraw from the camp "in order not to bear the responsibility of the continuing displacement of [Yarmouk's] residents".
About half of Yarmouk's 150,000 residents have fled since fighting erupted in mid-December, according to estimates by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) that administers Palestinian camps in the Middle East. Some sought refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, and others found shelter in UNRWA schools in Damascus and other Syrian cities.
Dozens have been killed in the fighting, although the United Nations did not provide an exact figure of casualties in Yarmouk violence that has included air strikes and shelling from the Syrian military and clashes between rebels and Assad loyalists.
When the revolt against Mr Al Assad's rule began in March 2011, the half-million-strong Palestinian community in Syria stayed on the sidelines. As the civil war deepened, most Palestinians backed the rebels, while some groups - such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) - have been fighting alongside the troops. The PFLP-GC joined the call for a truce. The group is led by Ahmed Jibril, a long-time Assad ally.
Yarmouk is the largest of nine Palestinian camps in Syria. Since the camp's creation in 1957, it has evolved into a densely populated district just 8 kilometres from the centre of Damascus. Several generations of Palestinian refugees live there, some employed as doctors, engineers and civil servants and others as labourers and street vendors. Many Syrians have also moved into the camp area over the years.
Meanwhile, in Geneva, the the World Food Programme said yesterday it was unable to help 1 million Syrians who are going hungry. This month, the agency aims to help 1.5 million of the 2.5 million Syrians that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent says need it, said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman.
The lack of security and the agency's inability to use the Syrian port of Tartous for its shipments mean that a large number of people in the some of the country's hardest hit areas will not get help, she said. "Our main partner, the Red Cross, is overstretched and has no more capacity to expand further," said Ms Byrs.
She also said that the agency had temporarily pulled its staff out of its offices in Homs, Aleppo, Tartous and Qamisly because of rising danger in those areas.
Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory and other activists reported heavy fighting yesterday in the suburbs of Damascus, including the Sayda Zeinab district, and reported shelling of the towns of Beit Saham and Aqraba, both near Damascus airport. The watchdog also said three shells were fired at the suburb of Jaramana, wounding 9 people.
* With additional reporting by Bloomberg News