A senior Palestinian official said Thursday that an agreement has been reached with the Syrian government to use military force to expel Islamic State militants from an embattled Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.
IS fighters overran much of the Yarmouk camp last week, marking the extremists' deepest foray yet into the Syrian capital. The IS incursion is the latest trial for Yarmouk and its estimated 18,000 remaining residents, who have already survived a devastating two-year government siege, starvation and disease.
"We have agreed with the Syrian government on ways to force the terrorist group IS out of the Yarmouk refugee camp," Ahmad Majdalani, the labor minister in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, told the Voice of Palestine Radio. "The military solution is the only one to force these terrorists out of the camp."
Majdalani, who is leading a West Bank delegation to Damascus to address the crisis, told reporters in in the Syrian capital that all Palestinian factions have agreed to continue consultations with the Syrian leadership and to form a joint operations room with government forces.
But it was unclear who exactly had signed onto the plan. Yarmouk is home to factions that support Syrian President Bashar Assad and groups that oppose him, and it was unclear whether Palestinians from both sides of the divide had indeed agreed to join forces.
There was no immediate word from the main Palestinian faction fighting the Islamic State group in Yarmouk, known as Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis. The group is opposed to Assad and affiliated with Hamas.
Majdalani also said the Syrian government has agreed to ensure safe passage to refugees in Yarmouk and to provide them with shelter outside the camp.
Yarmouk was the main refugee camp established in Syria for Palestinians who fled the 1948 war that attended Israel's creation. Before the Syrian civil war it was a sprawling, built-up neighborhood that was home to tens of thousands of Palestinians and Syrians alike.
Once Syria's conflict began in March 2011, some Palestinian factions based in the camp, including Hamas, sided with Sunni rebels fighting to topple the Syrian government, and it became a refuge for anti-Assad activists. Over the past four years, the camp has been devastated by the conflict.
On Thursday, buildings at the northern entrance to Yarmouk were nothing but empty shells, their insides having been blown out by explosives and charred black by fire, according to an Associated Press reporter who visited the government-held segment of the camp. Walls were pockmarked by bullets.
Fighters had dragged battered water tanks into the streets to use them as barriers. Downed electricity cables and rubble covered the pavement. An aid distribution center once run by the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, was totally destroyed by shelling.
The latest fighting in Yarmouk has worsened an already desperate situation for civilians still in the camp. On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross joined a growing chorus of aid groups calling for immediate access to the camp.
The ICRC said emergency medical care is "urgently needed" for the estimated 18,000 people still inside the camp, and warned that humanitarian needs "are growing by the day." It called on the armed factions to allow the "immediate and unimpeded passage" of humanitarian aid and to permit civilians who wish to flee to be able to do so.