UN plea to save Palestinian refugees trapped in Syrian camp being shelled as Isis seizes control

Isis militants have seized control of Yarmouk (pictured last year) and it is now being shelled President Bashar al-Assad's forces

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Hundreds of Palestinian refugees have fled a camp in Syria as it comes under bombardment by government forces and battles with Isis militants rage.

The so-called Islamic State took control of much of the Yarmouk refugee camp with the help of fellow Islamists last week, making it a target for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

As the violence escalated today, the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNRWA) that runs the settlement pleaded for all sides not to harm the civilians, including thousands of children, trapped inside.

It warned of “the gravest and most appalling of consequences” if hostilities do not stop and humanitarian aid cannot reach them.

Hatem al-Dimashqi, an activist based in an area south of Damascus, said many residents started fleeing Yarmouk after midnight on Saturday during a brief lull in fighting between Palestinian militants and Isis.

It has reportedly been hit by intense shelling and air strikes by the Syrian government after being stormed by the so-called Islamic State on Wednesday.

Palestinian officials and Syrian activists said they were joined by fighters from the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. The two groups are fighting bloody battles to control territory elsewhere in Syria but are known to co-operate occasionally.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those who managed to flee have reached the southern Damascus suburbs of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem, which are under rebel control.

A spokesperson said 26 people, including civilians, had been killed during clashes so far and seven people were executed by Isis.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the residents of Yarmouk are being victimised by Syria's brutal civil war.

Government forces and different rebel factions are clashing and “we pay the price,” he added.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said refugees are 'paying the price' of war in Syria

“We are in touch with our brothers there to find a way out and protect our people.”

The Palestine Liberation Organisation in Damascus has formed what Mr Abbas called a “cell to handle this tragedy”, adding that “they are trying to work it out with the least losses”.

Jabhat al-Nusra  claimed in a statement today that it was not participating in the battles and has taken a neutral stance, as well as opening its offices as a refuge.

In Damascus, Anwar Raja, a spokesperson for the pro-Assad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said several factions had united to defend the camp.

Palestinians at a protest in solidarity with refugees in Syria's Yarmouk camp on 5 April in Ramallah

He claimed more than 100 civilians have been either killed or kidnapped by Isis fighters who control between an estimated half and 90 per cent of Yarmouk. The numbers could not be  confirmed.

“Never has the hour been more desperate,” a spokesperson for the UNRWA said, appealing for all sides to put down their arms and withdraw immediately from civilian-populated areas.

The agency said Yarmouk is home to around 18,000 civilians, including 3,500 children at risk of of death, serious injury, trauma and displacement.

“UNRWA calls on concerned states to urgently exercise their authority and influence in order to end the fighting in Yarmouk for the sake of saving civilian lives and alleviating human suffering,” a spokesperson added.

“We demand that all parties exercise maximum restraint and abide by their obligations under international law to protect civilians.”

UN relief workers with local residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, pictured last year

UNRWA also wants humanitarian access to be maintained Yarmouk so safe conditions can be maintained for evacuations and the delivery of food, water and vital supplies.

The thousands of Palestinians living there have already been trapped for more than two years by intense fighting in the Syrian civil war and the camp has been shelled numerous times since 2011.

“Men, women and children - Syrians and Palestinians alike - are cowering in their battered homes in profound fear, desperate for security, food and water, deeply concerned by the grave perils that may yet come, as  hostilities  continue,” a UNRWA spokesperson said.

“The situation is extremely dire and threatens to deteriorate even further.”

Additional reporting by AP