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Official: Al-Nusra among factions preventing Yarmouk siege relief

Jan. 7, 2014 4:11 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 8, 2014 8:14 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Four militant factions remain in Yarmouk in violation of an agreement to secure peace for the beleaguered Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, a PLO official said Tuesday.

PLO executive committee member Ahmad Majdalani told Ma'an that four factions remain in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, despite the fact that nine factions -- including the four -- previously signed an agreement promising to withdraw.

The factions are Jebhat al-Nusra, Daish, Ibn Taymiyya, and a fourth unnamed faction, he said, referring primarily to a number of Wahhabi militant groups opposed to the Syrian regime.

The withdrawal of the factions is meant to allow the camp to become a neutral zone and to pressure the Syrian regime to end the 7-month-long siege of the camp, which has led to at least 30 deaths from starvation.

Al-Majdalani added that militants refuse to leave the camp because of their "political agendas," in an attempt to scuttle any possible agreement and thus to keep the camp in their hands.

Al-Majdalani announced that a delegation including himself, the head of the PLO refugees' department Zakaria Agha, and Jordanian PLO member Bilal Qassim, will head to Syria in an official visit on Tuesday.

They will meet political and security officials, Palestinian officials and Palestinian faction leaders as part of the visit.

"The delegation will try to pressure (officials) into opening safe passages for the entrance of medical and food supplies to the camp's population of around 20,000 Palestinian refugees," he said.

Al-Majdalani explained that the Palestinian Authority sent aid to the camp but it had not been allowed to enter because of the continued presence of militants in the camp.

He added that militants are determined to keep the camp because of its strategic position, as it is considered a gateway into Damascus.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told Ma'an Tuesday that the UN agency has "long supported strenuous international calls for a ceasefire and for the siege of Yarmouk to be lifted in accordance with international law and for the parties to the conflict to abide by international law obligations to respect civilian life. We again urge that these calls are heeded."

"In addition to the lifting of the siege, we require immediate and sustained humanitarian access so that we can bring succor to the needy and the malnourished; and thereafter we need to resume our humanitarian program fully. We are particularly concerned about the plight of some 20,000 people who remain in the camp, among them women and children. Given reports of starvation breaking out in the camp, time is running out."

After rebels seized control of Yarmouk in December 2012, the camp became embroiled in the armed fighting taking place across Syria and came under heavy regime assault.

Regime forces eventually encircled the camp and in July imposed a siege on the camp, leading to a rapid deterioration of living conditions.

In recent weeks, reports of death due to starvation have numbered in the dozens.

Fatah leader Abbas Zaki told Ma'an in mid-October that Yarmouk's population of 250,000 had dwindled to 18,000 after two and a half years of conflict in Syria.

The Syrian conflict, which began as peaceful protests in March 2011 but developed into a civil war, has killed more than 120,000 people and prompted millions to flee their homes.
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