Fighters from the Islamic State militant group have taken control of a major Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, a Palestinian official confirmed Wednesday, and battles are continuing between armed factions amid a civilian population that has faced starvation and violence in the four years since the war in Syria began.
Anwar Abdel Hadi, the director of political affairs for the Palestine Liberation Organization, confirmed to Agence France-Presse that ISIS, as the group is also known, had taken over most of the camp but that fighting was ongoing with rival antigovernment factions. Chris Gunness, a spokesman with the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, tweeted that the agency was unable to distribute aid to residents in the camp.
Bullets were flying in the streets, a resident of Yarmouk told the news agency Sputnik, leaving civilians panicked. Other militant groups that are fighting ISIS in Yarmouk include Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al Qaeda, and Akhnaf Beit al-Maqdis, a Palestinian group.
— Talal Alyan (@talalalyan) April 1, 2015
Yarmouk, although labeled a camp, more closely resembles a city neighborhood. It was once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, but now just 18,000 are estimated to remain, AFP has reported. In 2013, the area became a battleground between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and antigovernment groups. As fighters from both sides surrounded and controlled access and entry to the city, critical supplies dwindled and residents were forced to eat weeds, cats and dogs to survive. Rebels withdrew from the camp in February 2014 as part of a deal with the government, although antigovernment Palestinian factions remained in Yarmouk.
The Islamic State militant group has its de facto capital in Raqqa, in northern Syria, which is about 275 miles away from the Yarmouk refugee camp. The group also controls large swathes of territory in Iraq, and while it is opposed to the Syrian president and his government, it has also fought other factions in its attempts to take control of more territory in the region.