The United Nations is sounding the alarm over the “desperate” plight of civilians trapped amid fierce fighting in the largely Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus.
The camp is now almost entirely in the hands of the self-proclaimed Islamic State after it launched an attack on rival insurgents last the week.
An official from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Anouar Abdel Hadi, told the AFP news agency that some 400 families – around 2,000 people – had been evacuated from the camp on Sunday.
The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said that 94 people – 43 women and 20 children – had been moved out to receive humanitarian support , as it issued a forceful appeal to all armed parties to cease hostilities.
Its statement said never had civilian lives been more profoundly threatened: “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.”
Syrian government forces have responded to the ISIL advance by shelling, while the air force also bombed the camp this weekend, reportedly causing more civilian casualties.
Helicopters dropped barrel bombs, according to a UK-based opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Palestinian groups once opposed to President al-Assad are now in an unlikely alliance as they fight back against ISIL.
Their superior numbers backed by government artillery support has enabled them to make some gains.
Syrian rebels withdrew from the camp a year ago.
But despite their efforts, ISIL is said to have killed more than 20 people since Friday and kidnapped dozens.
The Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus has been home to some 18,000 Palestinian and Syrian civilians for two years, trapped by a government siege. The area has been devastated by street fighting, air attacks and shelling.
ISIL’s offensive into Yarmouk gives it a major presence in the Syrian capital only a few kilometres from Assad’s powerbase.
Caught up in acute danger are civilians. For them, the UN says “never has the hour been more desperate”.