Clashes ease at Damascus Palestinian refugee camp

BASSEM MROUE Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- Days of intense fighting in a Palestinian refugee camp subsided on Thursday and some of the more than 100,000 residents who fled the violence in the capital Damascus began to trickle back, activists and officials said.

In Moscow, Syria's most important international ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he is not preoccupied much with the fate of President Bashar Assad's regime and knows changes in the country are needed.

It was another blow to the regime from its most important international ally, coming just a week after Russia's top envoy for Syria was quoted as saying Assad's forces were losing control of the country. Although the Foreign Ministry backpedaled on that statement, analysts have suggested for months that the Kremlin is resigned to losing its longtime ally.

"We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime; we realize what's going on there and that the family has been in power for 40 years," Putin said. "Undoubtedly, there is a call for changes."

In Damascus, where rebels are posing an increasing challenge in Assad's seat of power, fighting has been raging for days in the Yarmouk refugee camp. It began when pro- and anti-regime elements within the camp began clashing a week ago.

More than two-thirds of the roughly 150,000 Palestinian residents have fled the camp since last week when the fighting flared up, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. They sought shelter in the outskirts of the camp, in other parts of Damascus or other cities, or headed to the Syrian-Lebanon border, it said.

Hundreds trickled back on Thursday. One of the first people to return was Zeina Abbas, 42, who fled to Damascus. She said by telephone that nearly 1,000 people return to their homes and added that that she saw rebels in the streets.

"I saw damage in Yarmouk street," said the woman referring to one of the main streets in the camp. Abbas added that she saw gunmen leaving parts of the camp after speaking on their cell phones.

Tens of thousands fled the camp over the past few days amid fears that government troops could launch a new offensive to cleanse the area of opposition fighters.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Yarmouk was quiet on Thursday and that "hundreds of people have returned."

Damascus-based Palestinian official Khaled Abdul-Majid told The Associated Press that Cairo-based Palestinian leaders were mediating to get the remaining rebels out of Yarmouk. The rebels entered Yarmouk over the past week to support anti-regime Palestinian residents fighting government loyalists.

Abdul-Majid said the exiled leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shallah are taking part in the mediation by phone from Cairo.

"There are no guarantees from the gunmen," said Abdul-Majid. He added the rebels should pull out to the southern Damascus neighborhoods of Hajar Aswad and Yalda, where they came from.

The rebel offensive in the camp, which began Friday, was aimed at driving out pro-government Palestinian gunmen of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Several Syria-based Palestinian factions called on Palestinians who fled to return to the camp in a statement Thursday saying "it will be a safe area."

When the revolt against Assad's rule began in March 2011, the half-million-strong Palestinian community in Syria stayed on the sidelines. But as the civil war deepened, most Palestinians backed the rebels, while some groups -- such as the PFLP-GC-- have been fighting alongside the troops. The group is led by Ahmed Jibril, Assad's longtime ally.

Syria's conflict started 21 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, at least 40,000 people have been killed in the past 21 months.

In Moscow, Putin said Russia wants to see a settlement that would "prevent the country from breakup and an endless civil war." Agreements based on a military victory can't be effective."

Russia has repeatedly blocked international attempts to step up pressure on the Assad regime as it fights an increasingly successful opposition. That has brought substantial criticism of Russia as effectively supporting the regime, but Russia has said its stance isn't aimed at propping up Assad.

A new U.N. human rights report said Syria's civil war is increasingly turning into a sectarian conflict pitting majority Sunni rebels against government forces supported by the country's religious and ethnic minorities.

Sergio Pinheiro, who heads an independent commission investigating abuses, said the bulk of the victims of the nearly 2-year-old war were civilians, and blamed both sides for abuses including torture and illegal executions.

Activists reported more violence in Damascus and Aleppo, the country's largest city, where the Observatory said rebels are trying to capture an air defense base on its northern edge. Rebels have captured several military bases near Aleppo and Damascus over the past weeks.

The Observatory also reported that rebels attacked a security building in the Damascus neighborhood of Kfar Souseh with mortar rounds. The group also said that rebels captured a military post in the Damascus western suburb of Rankous on the border with Lebanon.

The Observatory said there is heavy fighting between troops and rebels attacking army checkpoints in the town of Morek on the highway linking Damascus to Aleppo. If rebels take the town, they may be able to cut supplies to the northern city of Idlib, which is regime controlled.