Syrian jets bomb Damascus refugee camp

 

Turkey

Syrian jets dropped bombs on a decades-old Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus on Sunday after days of intense fighting in the crowded neighborhood between Syrian rebels and Palestinians who support the government, opposition activists said.

The attack on Yarmouk camp, home to 150,000 Palestinians squeezed into less than one square mile, underscored the ferocity of fighting a month into a Syrian offensive to beat back the insurgents in the Syrian capital. Warplanes also bombed rebel positions on a road to Damascus International Airport.

A YouTube video, which could not be independently verified, showed streets strewn with debris and several bodies stretched out on the ground and on steps leading to what looked like a mosque.

Though Yarmouk has been shelled repeatedly by the Syrian military, this is believed to be the first time it came under an aerial attack.

The number of casualties on Sunday was unclear. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said eight civilians were killed in the attack near the mosque and a hospital. Other reports, also attributed to activists, put the death toll at 25 or more.

Yarmouk does not fit the traditional image of a refugee camp. Rather than tents, it has multi-story apartment buildings, paved streets and schools. It was established in 1957 as a squatters camp for Palestinians displaced by fighting over the establishment of Israel in 1948, and remains home to their descendants.

Syria has a total of about 500,000 Palestinians, and many of them have been caught up in the civil war. Thousands have become refugees from the refugee camp, going to neighboring countries to avoid the violence.

But Yarmouk also lately has sheltered tens of thousands of Syrians seeking refuge from fighting in their own towns and neighborhoods.

The camp has been a stronghold of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command, a radical Palestinian splinter group that has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the civil war began 21 months ago. After several days of particularly intense fighting between Palestinians belonging to the PFLP-GC and Syrian rebels, there were reports this weekend that the group's leader, Ahmed Jibril, had left the camp for the port city of Tartous.

Reports from inside Yarmouk on Sunday were confusing and contradictory.

Rebels of the Free Syrian Army put out a statement saying that Palestinians from the PFLP-GC had been taking over positions abandoned by the Syrian Army, including checkpoints and sniper posts. It claimed that 60 Palestinians "defected" and switched sides to fight with the FSA.

But a resident of the camp reached by phone Sunday night said the Syrians fighting inside Yarmouk were not with the FSA but with Islamist units that have proved to be some of the fiercest fighters against the regime.

"We have Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafis and extremist Islamic groups who look different," said Yaser Kashlat, head of a humanitarian organization working in Yarmouk, naming two groups that are considered among the most extreme jihadis. "They carry guns and swords at the same time."

Kashlat said Yarmouk has swelled by 30,000 as Syrians have moved into the camp to escape fighting elsewhere. But he said there were no clashes until the Islamist fighters started "provoking" Palestinians.

Kashlat said Yarmouk now has become more sectarian and contentious. "We are in a phase heading nowhere," he said.

Elsewhere in Syria, Islamist fighters claimed responsibility for taking an infantry school near the northern city of Aleppo on Saturday.

A statement posted Sunday on the website of the al-Tawheed Brigade, one of the largest rebel groups operating in Aleppo, said they had "fully liberated" a facility that has an army base, a recruitment center and a military school. The al-Tawheed commander was killed in the attack, it said.

A rebel reached by Skype said fighters had expropriated tanks and other vehicles from the Syrian military cache, and captured several soldiers to be held as prisoners.

Also on Sunday, Syrian planes dropped bombs on the town of Azaz just two miles from Syria's border with Turkey in an area that is controlled by rebels. It was close enough that Syrians sheltered in a refugee camp in Turkey, near the town of Kilis, could hear the explosions from several miles away. The bombing sent hundreds of frightened residents of Azaz fleeing from their homes.

Syrian missiles fired at rebels have occasionally strayed over the border into Turkey. Usually they land without causing any harm, but once five people were killed by a wandering missile. The United States, Germany and the Netherlands are sending Turkey a total of six Patriot anti-missile batteries to buttress its defense capabilities along the 550-mile border.

- - -

Washington Post special correspondent Suzan Haidamous, reporting from Beirut, contributed to this report.

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