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Palestinian refugees and others who fled the Damascus suburb of Yarmuk and the Yarmuk refugee camp arrive at the Masnaa Lebanese border crossing to flee Syria.
Palestinian refugees and others who fled the Damascus suburb of Yarmuk and the Yarmuk refugee camp arrive at the Masnaa Lebanese border crossing to flee Syria.

Syrian rebels advance as battles rage in Damascus

Clashes between Syrian rebels and an armed Palestinian group loyal to president Bashar Al Assad rage inside a Damascus refugee camp yesterday, as the Syrian military deploys tanks outside.

BEIRUT // Clashes between Syrian rebels and an armed Palestinian group loyal to president Bashar Al Assad raged inside a Damascus refugee camp yesterday, as the Syrian military deployed tanks outside, activists said.

The rebels fighting to topple Mr Al Assad's regime have made significant advances in the past weeks, capturing airbases and military installations in and around Damascus.

Their offensive in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in southern Damascus, which began Friday, is aimed at driving the pro-government Palestinian gunmen out of the camp.

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. But 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 - have been fighting on the government side.

By yesterday afternoon, the Syrian military deployed several tanks along camp's main entrance, the residents said. There were no Syrian government troops in the camp. Activist videos posted online show armed men moving through the streets of the Damascus camp, as people cheered their presence and chanted "God is great".

The fighting in the camp has forced an exodus of Palestinian refugees and Syrians who came to the camp in past weeks to escape violence elsewhere in the city, according to United Nations officials. They said the situation in Yarmouk was "chaotic".

Civilians continue to leave the camp. Others are fleeing to other Syrian cities and many are headed to the Lebanon-Syrian border, said Sami Mshasha, spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency.

A statement by UNRWA said the agency was "gravely concerned" for the Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk who "have experienced particularly intense armed engagements involving the use of heavy weapons and aircraft".

The world's largest Muslim body yesterday condemned the clashes rocking the camp and held both government troops and rebels responsible for the unrest. "We are sorry for what Yarmuk camp has undergone. Palestinians must have been spared the killing and unrest... neither the regime nor the opposition can be excused," Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, based in Saudi Arabia, said.

In Geneva, the United Nations said 4 million people need humanitarian aid in Syria.

World Food Program spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told reporters yesterday that about 2.5 million Syrians need food aid, but her agency can only reach 1.5 million of them.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the Damascus Hospital gets 70 to 100 patients a day whose injuries mostly result from "the escalating violence over the last few months". Most of the injuries at one Damascus hospital are from burns, gunshots and injuries from explosions, said WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic.

The 21-month battle to bring down the Assad regime has forced some 3 million Syrians from their homes, according to a new estimate. Cold, wet winter weather is making life increasingly difficult for the displaced. Among those who left their homes are more than 500,000 who fled to neighbouring countries - Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Also yesterday, American foreign news correspondent, Richard Engel, said he and his crew escaped unharmed during a firefight after being held captive for five days. NBC News said on its website that Mr Engel and his team were kidnapped shortly after crossing the border from Turkey into Syria on Thursday. They were blindfolded and bound, but otherwise not physically harmed.

In related developments, yesterday, a Russian navy squadron set off for the Mediterranean, but the defence ministry did not say whether the navy ships are intended for an evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria.

* With additional reports from Agence-France Presse

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