BEIRUT (AP) — A senior United Nations official on Monday called on all sides to "respect the beleaguered civilians" trapped inside an embattled Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital.
Islamic State militants overran much of the Yarmouk early this month, giving the extremist group its first foothold in Damascus. The heavy fighting touched off by the Islamic State attack has added yet another layer of misery for camp residents, who have already survived a two-year government siege, starvation and disease
"I call on all sides to respect the beleaguered civilians trapped inside Yarmouk," said Pierre Krahenbuhl, the head of the U.N. agency that supports Palestinians, known as UNRWA. "They have suffered untold indignities and I shall continue to work today to assist those who wish to temporarily leave in safety. At the same time, we need to look at ways to provide humanitarian assistance to the civilians inside Yarmouk."
Krahenbuhl is in Damascus for meetings with Syrian officials as well as people who have fled the fighting in Yarmouk, where Palestinian groups supported by Syrian rebels have been clashing with Islamic State militants. The Syrian government, meanwhile, has been pounding the camp with airstrikes and artillery.
The UNRWA commissioner-general said his talks Sunday with the Syrian government "offer some grounds for optimism," but he stressed that much remains to be done in his meetings later Monday with senior officials to secure humanitarian access for the camp.
"We can all agree that peaceful options for resolving the Yarmouk crisis will provide the optimal solution right now for the protection of the civilians," Krahenbuhl said.
Yarmouk was the main camp established in Syria for Palestinians who fled the 1948 war around Israel's creation. Before the Syrian civil war, it was a sprawling, built-up neighborhood that was home to tens of thousands of Palestinians and Syrians. Only 10 percent of the camp's inhabitants remain.
Once the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, some Palestinian factions based in the camp sided with Sunni rebels fighting to topple the government, prompting the military to impose a suffocating blockade.