Syrian rebels and Palestinian fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad battled for control of a Damascus refugee camp days after government airstrikes in the area.
There was heavy firing as the two sides fought in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in south Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement today. The clashes have forced refugees to flee the area, the U.K.-based group said. Al Arabiya reported today that the camp was under rebel control.
Syrian forces had massed near Yarmouk yesterday as the government tried to reassert control over the area in a campaign that included weekend airstrikes that left at least eight people dead. The opposition has made gains against Assad’s forces and controls mainly Sunni Muslim areas stretching from the northeastern outskirts of the capital to areas in the southwest.
There are 525,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria and a “significant number” have been killed, wounded or forced to flee during the 21-month conflict, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said on its website. Almost 44,000 people have died since the anti-Assad uprising began, according to the Syrian Observatory.
The fighting in Yarmouk is between rebels and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which has been fighting with Assad forces, according to the Syrian Observatory.
Russia, an ally and arms supplier to Assad’s government, has dispatched warships to the Mediterranean to prepare for the possible evacuation of its citizens from Syria, Interfax reported, citing an unidentified naval official. A frigate, two amphibious assault ships and a tanker from Russia’s Baltic Fleet left for the Mediterranean to hold planned exercises and replace a Black Sea Fleet naval detachment in the area, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said by phone today.
The naval deployment was organized at short notice and aims to put in place contingency arrangements for the evacuation of Russian citizens in Syria, Interfax cited the unidentified naval official as saying.
Syria has long served as Russia’s foothold in the Middle East, home to its only military base in the region, the strategically located Tartous naval facility. Russia also has been Syria’s leading arms supplier.
Hamas, the Palestinian movement that runs the Gaza Strip and is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., Israel and the European Union, condemned the Dec. 16 attacks by Assad’s forces on the Palestinian camp and called those responsible “war criminals,” according to an e-mailed statement.
Hamas was formerly allied to the Assad government and many of its leaders were Damascus-based. The last member of the organization’s politburo was reported by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper to have left Syria in February as the Syrian civil conflict intensified.
Fighting killed 158 civilians yesterday, including 50 in Damascus and its suburbs, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said in an e-mailed statement. Some 35 soldiers died in the fighting yesterday, and 13 people were killed in Yarmouk, the Syrian Observatory said.
The Syrian government was trying to restore basic needs to the citizens of Aleppo, Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi was cited as saying by the Syrian Arab News Agency yesterday during a trip to the country’s largest city. Al-Halaqi blamed the disruption of water, electricity and communications services on “armed terrorist” attacks, the news service said.
The UN’s World Food Programme warned earlier this month that the escalation of violence in Syria is making it more difficult to reach the country’s hardest-hit areas. The food-security situation has “rapidly” deteriorated, with bread and fuel shortages and infrastructure damage caused by the fighting, the WFP said.
Assad’s troops have lost a series of battles for barracks, airfields, power plants, oilfields and roads across the country against rebels in the second half of this year. Syrian rebels overran two military bases outside of Aleppo this month with support from Islamic militants.
Syria’s civil war is destined for stalemate, with neither the rebels nor the military able to prevail in the conflict, Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa told Al-Akhbar newspaper. His comments were posted on its English-language website on Dec. 16. North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius have said during the past week that Assad’s days may be numbered.