PLO says backs Syrian army drive to regain Yarmouk camp from militants | Reuters
Reuters) – A Palestinian official said on Thursday he supported a Syrian army offensive to regain control of the war-battered Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus that has fallen into the hands of Islamic State.
The radical Islamist group, which rules swathes of Syria and Iraq, seized almost all of Yarmouk in recent days, brushing aside local militia opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“They have tried to used the camp as a launching pad to expand their scope of clashes and their terror activities inside and outside the camp,” said Ahmad Majdalani, a minister in the Western-backed Palestinian Authority who was sent to Damascus by the PLO leadership to discuss the crisis with the government.
Majdalani said the Syrian army alongside local Palestinian groups had had some success in pushing back the Islamic State and had so far secured 35 percent of the camp.
The sprawling Yarmouk was home to some 160,000 Palestinians before the Syrian conflict began in 2011 — refugees from the 1948 war of Israel’s founding, and their descendents.
Majdalani said there were just 17,500 residents left, with around 2,000 evacuated since the latest round of fighting.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict from Britain, earlier said that Islamic State controlled 90 percent of the camp after defeating fighters mainly from Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis — a Syrian and Palestinian militia opposed to Assad.
Islamic State, the most powerful insurgent group in Syria, is now only a few kilometres from Assad’s seat of power.
The Palestinian official echoed the Syrian government line that only way to rid the camp of the ultra radical militants was through force.
“What we have agreed with our Syrian brothers and factions is that the options that existed for a political solution were closed by the fighters of Daesh,” he said, using a derogatory term for Islamist State.
“The crimes they have committed … left us with no choice except a security one that respects the partnership with the Syrian state,” he told a news conference in Damascus.
The Observatory has said Syrian air force jets had been waging a bombing campaign on militant hideouts in the camp almost daily since Islamic State fighters infiltrated from the adjacent, rebel-held Hajar al Aswad neighbourhood.
The United Nations has said it is extremely concerned about the safety and protection of Syrians and Palestinians in the camp. Civilians trapped there have long suffered a government siege that has led to chronic food shortages and disease.
Majdalani said the Islamic State drive to seize Yarmouk had upset a fragile status quo that reigned inside the camp since it was taken over by opposition groups over two years ago and was an attempt to suck Palestinians into the wider Syrian conflict.