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UN Warns of Potential Massacre in Syria's Yarmouk Refugee Camp

Rubble and heavy damage remain on a deserted street during a government escorted visit to Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, April 9, 2015.

The United Nations is appealing for action to head off what could be a potential massacre in Yarmouk refugee camp in the Syrian capital, Damascus, where thousands of Palestinians have been trapped since Islamic State militants overran the camp earlier this week.

The United Nations is trying to alert the international community of the severity and enormity of the tragedy that is unfolding in Yarmouk.

Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said Islamic State militants are holding 18,000 Palestinians hostage.

He described Yarmouk as looking like a death camp and warned of a massacre if nothing is done to liberate its inhabitants from Islamic State.

Talking by phone from Jerusalem, Christopher Gunness of U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said 3,500 children are among the 18,000 people trapped in Yarmouk.

“Today, this hour, we are looking at nothing short of a potential slaughter of the innocents … We have called for a cease-fire," he said. "We have called for humanitarian access so that people can have aid administered to them where they are."

Beyond that, Gunness said that if civilians want to leave, "they must be allowed to leave in accordance with international standards.”

Gunness estimated the armed groups that went into Yarmouk about a week ago are in control of more than half of the camp. He said about 95 percent of the Palestinian population lives in this area.

He said the world cannot and must not sit back and do nothing. Diplomatic, political, economic and financial means — as well as religious and spiritual pressure — must be brought to bear to prevent a catastrophic outcome, he added.

Gunness told VOA that UNRWA, as a United Nations humanitarian agency, backs anything that can peacefully bring this crisis to an end. But he said he is adamantly opposed to seeking a military solution.

“Find me an example in the Syrian context where military escalation has actually saved civilian lives," he said. "That is why we say that all measures must be taken to protect civilians, not put civilians in harms way and the people of Yarmouk, goodness knows, only have suffered enough, which is why we are calling for a cease-fire.”

The World Health Organization said it is very concerned by the situation in Yarmouk and is lending its voice to calls for an end to the fighting. It said food and water supplies are extremely low in the camp; and this is seriously undermining the health of the people.

WHO said a humanitarian corridor for health and all other essential aid must be opened soon. If that does not happen, it warned the humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk will only deteriorate further.