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Islamic State Militants Seize Part of Damascus' Yarmouk Refugee Camp

FILE - Residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the U.N. refugee agency at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus, Syria, May 2014.

Islamic State militants captured a part of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus, amid heavy fighting. The apparent victory over pro-Syrian government Palestinian factions follows other strategic losses by the Assad regime in Idlib and outside of Daraa.

Witnesses say Islamic State militants entered the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp Wednesday on the outskirts of Damascus, capturing large parts of it. The camp has traditionally been under the control of pro-government Palestinian factions.

Yarmouk refugee camp, near Damascus, Syria
Yarmouk refugee camp, near Damascus, Syria

Thousands of residents of Yarmouk fled to Lebanon and Jordan after fighting broke out in the camp in 2012. Nearly 15,000 Palestinians are reported to still live in the camp, where food and other basic necessities are extremely scarce.

A spokesman for the United Nations, which does not run the camp, described ongoing "intensive armed conflict" in the area since early afternoon Wednesday, adding there was credible information a variety of armed groups were involved.

Some reports say that the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra joined Islamic State militants in the battle to capture much of the camp from pro-government forces.

But a pro-Assad regime military analyst told Syrian TV the two militant groups were fighting each other. VOA could not independently confirm either report.

The analyst also condemned the closure of the only remaining border crossing to Jordan under Syrian government control. Jordan shut the crossing after fighting near the border post. Trucks and passenger traffic from Lebanon and Syria are affected by the closure.

American University of Beirut Political Science Professor Hilal Khashan tells VOA he does not believe the eventual fall of Yarmouk to either the Islamic State or the Jabhat al Nusra will seriously affect the strategic position of Assad government forces.

"This whole area is under the siege of government forces and Islamic State troops came from al Hajjar al Aswad, which is another neighborhood of Damascus," he said. "So, here you have besieged troops moving from one besieged area to another, so I do not really think it will make much of a difference, except that it could be an attempt to show force after the fall of Tikrit."

But University of Oklahoma Middle East Program Director Joshua Landis tells VOA the government set-back in Yarmouk could be significant in that it follows other major government setbacks.

"The importance of Yarmouk is that it raises the question of whether the end of the regime is getting closer," he said. "Now, we are far away from that, but we have had the conquest of Busrat-al-Sham in the south, of Idlib in the north and the rebels have been making a number of inroads, recently, so to hear that ISIS and Nusra are getting into Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus is a reason for caution about the strength of the regime."

Landis also points out a bus carrying pro-government women fighters was ambushed by rebel forces outside of Damascus, killing and wounding dozens.

He argues “the battle is becoming more and more desperate for the regime,” which is “recruiting women on a larger and larger scale,” as well as using foreign militiamen from both Lebanon and Iraq.

Margaret Besheer contributed to this report from the United Nations.

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