2,000 refugees flee as militants seize Syrian camp

2,000 refugees flee as militants seize Syrian camp
A picture taken on April 4, 2015 shows boys pushing a cart in a street of Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, southern Damascus.

DAMASCUS, Syria - Around 2,000 people have been evacuated from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized large parts of it, a Palestinian official told Agence France-Presse yesterday.

"Around 400 families, approximately 2,000 people, were able to leave the camp on Friday and Saturday via two secure roads to the Zahira district, which is under army control," said Anwar Abdul Hadi, a Palestine Liberation Organisation official.

He said Syrian troops had helped in the evacuation, which came as Palestinian forces battled to hold back ISIS fighters who have captured large swathes of the camp since last Wednesday. Most of those evacuated from the camp were being hosted in government shelters, with at least 25 wounded people taken to two hospitals in Damascus, he added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, confirmed that "hundreds" of people had been evacuated from the camp. The group said at least 26 people, including civilians as well as fighters from ISIS and Palestinian factions, had been killed in the camp since last Wednesday.

Since the Islamist advance, regime forces have pounded the camp with shells and barrel bombs, according to the observatory. Palestinian officials and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees have urged for humanitarian access to the camp.

Yarmouk, in southern Damascus, was once home to 160,000 people, Syrians as well as Palestinians. But its population has dwindled to just 18,000 since the Syrian uprising erupted in March 2011. The camp is encircled by government forces and was under a tight siege for more than a year.

An agreement last year between rebels and the government, backed by Palestinian factions, led to an easing of the siege, but humanitarian access has remained limited.

ISIS fighters attacked the camp last Wednesday and were initially largely repelled, but were subsequently able to capture large parts of it. Among the deaths in the fighting were at least two Palestinian militants reportedly beheaded by ISIS.

Syrian forces remain outside the camp, and sources said troops had set up additional checkpoints around Yarmouk after the fighting began.

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