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Ambassador: Palestinian camp in Damascus deserted

Dec. 18, 2012 9:37 A.M. (Updated: Dec. 20, 2012 11:35 A.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Over 95 percent of Palestinians in Yarmouk have fled the refugee camp near Damascus under heavy shelling, the Palestinian ambassador to Syria said Tuesday.

Mahmud al-Khalidi told Ma'an that refugees fled to UNRWA schools amid violent clashes between rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Rebel and Palestinian sources said Syrian rebels took full control of Yarmouk camp on Monday after fighting raged for days in the district on the southern edge of Damascus.

Al-Khalidi said he had contacted the Syrian Foreign Ministry to request an end to airstrikes on Yarmouk, but Syrian officials insisted rebels must leave the camp first.

President Mahmoud Abbas is monitoring the distribution of funds to refugees and has instructed al-Khalidi to provide housing for the displaced Palestinians, the ambassador said.

Al-Khalidi met with Palestinian factions to provide food, aid and housing to refugees, he said, adding that he would meet on Tuesday with the Supreme Relief Committee of Palestinian Refugees.

He said Palestinian leaders had agreed to stay out of the crisis in Syria, but the location of the camps had pushed Palestinians into the battle.

The battle in Yarmouk pitted rebels, backed by some Palestinians, against Palestinian fighters of the pro-Assad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Many PFLP-GC fighters defected to the rebel side and their leader Ahmed Jibril left the camp two days ago, rebel sources said.

"All of the camp is under the control of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army," said a Palestinian activist in Yarmouk. He said clashes had stopped and the remaining PFLP-GC fighters retreated to join Assad's forces massed on the northern edge of the camp.

The battle in Yarmouk is one of a series of conflicts on the southern fringes of Assad's capital, as rebels try to choke the power of the 47-year-old leader after a 21-month-old uprising in which 40,000 people have been killed.

Government forces have used jets and artillery to try to dislodge the fighters but the violence has crept into the heart of the city and activists say rebels overran three army stations in a new offensive in the central province of Hama on Monday.

On the border with Lebanon, hundreds of Palestinian families fled across the frontier following the weekend violence in Yarmouk, a Reuters witness said.

Syria hosts half a million Palestinian refugees, most living in Yarmouk, descendants of those admitted after the creation of Israel in 1948, and has always cast itself as a champion of the Palestinian struggle, sponsoring several guerrilla factions.

Both Assad's government and the mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels have enlisted and armed divided Palestinian factions as the uprising has developed into a civil war.

Reuters contributed to this report.
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