WASHINGTON - Hundreds of civilians living in a militant-held pocket of southern Damascus were caught in fierce clashes between Russian-backed Syrian government forces and militant groups controlling southern Damascus neighborhoods.
Syrian government forces launched a military operation five days ago to seize the area.
“Dozens of families took refuge in basements and shelters, suffering in dire conditions from lack of water and food, as fighter jets continue to pummel the area,” Mattar Ismael, a journalist living in south Damascus, told VOA.
Ismael added that the Syrian government deployed large numbers of forces and heavy artillery encircling Yarmouk after taking over rebel-held territories in eastern Ghouta.
The United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), an organization that works to help Palestinian refugees in the Near East, estimates the number of civilians living in southern Damascus are about 12,000. About 6,000 of them are Palestinian refugees.
“Supplies of food and medicine are running low. There is no running water and very little electricity. Health care options are limited, and there are no doctors in the area,” Reuters reported, citing UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness.
Yarmouk camp witnessed one of the most devastating embargo campaigns when the Syrian government besieged the area for several months in 2013, causing severe deprivation and hunger among civilians.
Who controls south Damascus?
Different rebel groups and militants control the district of southern Damascus. In April 2015, Islamic State took over Yarmouk camp, the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, displacing thousands of civilians. IS also controls the neighborhoods of Hajr Al Aswad, Tadamun and Al Asali.
Yarmouk camp was established in 1957 for the Palestinian refugees who fled the 1948 war with Israel. According to UNRWA, the camp was home to about 160,000 Palestinians before Syria's conflict in 2011.
In the adjacent areas, the Free Syrian Army rebels control Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahm. A small pocket called Al Rijeh is controlled by former al-Qaida-affiliate group Tahrir Al Sham.
Syrian government forces have encircled all militant-controlled areas in south Damascus.
Negotiations with IS
Negotiations between the Syrian government and IS failed mainly because the leaders of IS asked for a guarantee from Russia for its safety when they were evacuated to the Syrian desert.
“IS militants wanted a guarantee to not be attacked by any party when they evacuate, like the coalition, in case they went to east Syria, nor by the Free Syrian Army, in case they went south, where an IS-affiliated group exists there,” Ismael said.
Ismael added that the Syrian government’s push into Yarmouk aims to force IS militants to leave the area without any guarantees, as the current IS leader in Yarmouk camp, Abu Mohammed Thiabieh, vowed to carry out suicide attacks under the Syrian government's control.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based rights group monitoring the situation in Syria, said a counterattack targeted neighborhoods in Damascus under the control of the regime, killing 11 civilians and injuring dozens.