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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Syria planning for Palestinian refugees' return to Yarmouk

The camp was home to some 160,000 Palestinians before Syria's war broke out in 2011

A man walks through rubble in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. AP
A man walks through rubble in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. AP

Syrian authorities have created a plan for the return of Palestinians to the war-ravaged Yarmuk refugee camp in southern Damascus, the deputy foreign minister said Tuesday.

In an interview with broadcaster Al-Mayadeen in Beirut, Faisal Al Meqdad said there was a "plan for the return of all refugees to the camp", home to some 160,000 Palestinians before Syria's war broke out in 2011.

He did not specify how or when people would start returning.

Syrian government and allied forces retook the neighbourhood in May from the Islamic State group, pushing the militants out of their only bastion in the capital.

"Efforts are being made to clear (the camp) of mines left by... Daesh," said Mr Meqdad, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Founded in 1957 with tents for Palestinians who fled or were ousted from their homes with the establishment of Israel, Yarmuk grew into a bustling neighbourhood.

In 2012, around 140,000 residents fled as clashes raged.

Those who stayed faced severe shortages of food and medicine under a withering years-long government siege.

ISIS extremists entered the area in 2015, bringing further suffering to remaining residents until being forced out in May.

Five months on, only a few residents have managed to return.

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Mr Meqdad said Damascus wanted to dispel any "rumours" that Palestinians had been displaced.

The once-busy district is now a ghost town piled with rubble and mangled steel rods.

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has said its 23 premises in the camp including 16 schools are damaged, but that it would not fix any unless the government officially allowed residents to return.

UN and Palestinian officials have criticised Damascus for not giving the go-ahead for reconstruction plans or officially allowing residents to return.

On Monday, Mr Meqdad said the Syrian government would not object to a "role for the Palestinian Authority or UNRWA in rebuilding the camp".

More than 360,000 people have been killed since Syria's multi-faceted war erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.