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Aid to thousands of Syrians blocked as Al-Qaeda-linked rebels siege refugee camp

Humanitarian aid for thousands of civilians trapped in a Palestinian-dominated area of the Syrian capital was halted as the district came under siege by Islamist rebels despite a long-negotiated truce.

The UN has voiced its concerns over the situation in the southern Damascus district of Yarmouk, where fighting erupted on Sunday. Around 20,000 people there are suffering from widespread starvation, malnutrition, and health problems, as they have been blocked from food, drinking water, and medical help for months now.

The UN "remains deeply concerned about the desperate humanitarian situation in Yarmouk, and the fact that increasing tensions and resort to armed force have disrupted its efforts to alleviate the desperate plight of civilians," UN spokesman in Damascus Chris Gunness said.

Speaking on behalf of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Gunness urged all parties to "immediately allow and facilitate the resumption of food distribution to civilians inside Yarmouk."

On his Twitter account, Gunness said that "concerned parties" have reportedly held a ceasefire "for [the] last 48 hours" and continue "to negotiate ways to reduce tensions."

The clashes, which are said to be the most serious violence to take place in the region for weeks, lasted until Monday morning and seriously undermined a tentative truce struck there in early January when limited food aid was allowed into Yarmouk, Reuters reported.

The truce took hold on February 10 in Yarmouk, after Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front withdrew fighters.

Yet on Sunday, Al-Nusra alleged that Syrian President Bashar Assad's government forces and allies of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC) broke the deal, AFP reported.

Al-Nusra claimed it had stood down for humanitarian reasons, but that "a very small number of food parcels" - much less than included in the agreement - had been distributed.

Al-Nusra reentered the camp on Sunday, activists confirmed.

"I was out filming and suddenly the shelling started. You should have seen the children: they were terrified," said activist Rami Al-Sayed.

"There are no civilians on the streets. Everyone's afraid and hiding in their houses because of the shelling and sniping," he continued.

Fighters of the Free Syrian Army, among other groups, were involved in Sunday's clashes, according to an activist who uses the name Abu Akram, AP reported.

PFLP-GC blamed Al-Nusra for breaking the agreement when it reappeared at the camp.

"This morning, Al-Nusra Front returned once again to Yarmuk camp, disrupting the peace initiative whose aim was to address the tragedy of the hostage camp," said PFLP-GC spokesman Anwar Raja.

"Reconciliation efforts have, in my opinion, reached a deadlock,'' Raja added.

The clashes between groups included gun battles, sniper fire, and mortar shells, Akram said.

Al-Nusra is considered by Al-Qaeda to be its only legitimately affiliated group in Syria after repeated attempts by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri to heal rifts between the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and the more moderate Al-Nusra.

ISIL "is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group...does not have an organizational relationship with it and [Al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions," Al-Qaeda's General Command said in a statement one month ago.

South of Damascus, near rebel-dominated suburbs, Yarmouk became a valuable supply line for rebel fighters while attracting government artillery shelling that has destroyed large swaths of the district.

Activist Sayed told AFP that during the truce period, "the only medical relief that made it into Yarmouk was smuggled in, and in tiny amounts."

Since January, UNRWA has given out over 7,500 food parcels in the camp, saying the amount was "a drop in the ocean compared with the rising tide of need."

Months of shelling and fighting in and around Yarmouk between rebel groups and Assad loyalists have caused the camp's population to go from 150,000 to 40,000. Around 18,000 Palestinians are among the residents.

[Source: RT, Moscow, 04Mar14]

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