- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 8, 2013

DAMASCUS, Syria — Palestinian factions in Syria called for a cease-fire Tuesday after fighting flared at a refugee camp in the capital, Damascus, highlighting a split among Palestinians as the civil war intensifies.

The Yarmouk camp has been the scene of heavy clashes in the past, but the violence subsided last month after Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad battled loyalists there to a standstill.

In Tuesday’s fighting, five people were killed on Yarmouk Street, four of them when a shell exploded and the fifth in sniper fire, according to the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on reports from activists on the ground.

The group said intense clashes were taking place on the edges of the camp, where the Syrian troops are positioned, and the nearby Hajar Aswad district.

In a statement, representatives of 14 Damascus-based Palestinian factions called for a cease-fire and a halt to all military operations to enable medical teams and food supply trucks to enter the camp.

They urged gunmen to withdraw from the camp “in order not to bear the responsibility of the continuing displacement of [Yarmouk‘s] residents.”

Half of Yarmouk’s 150,000 residents have fled since fighting erupted in mid-December, according to estimates by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which administers Palestinian camps in the Middle East.

Some sought refuge in neighboring Lebanon, and others found shelter in UNRWA schools in Damascus and other Syrian cities.

Dozens have been killed in the fighting, although the United Nations did not provide an exact figure of casualties in Yarmouk violence that has included airstrikes and artillery shelling from the Syrian military and clashes between rebels and Assad loyalists.

Khaled Abdul-Majid, a senior representative of the Palestinian factions that issued the statement, told reporters in Damascus: “We are working to end those clashes.”

An UNRWA spokesman told The Associated Press that Syrian forces continue blocking the camp’s entrances, though residents were allowed to retrieve personal belongings. All UNRWA facilities in the camp remain closed, including three health care centers that are inaccessible because of the fighting, said the spokesman, Sami Mshasha.

When the revolt against Mr. Assad’s rule began in March 2011, the half-million-strong Palestinian community in Syria stayed on the sidelines.

As the civil war deepened, most Palestinians backed the rebels, while some groups — such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command — have been fighting alongside the troops.

The Popular Front joined the call for a truce Tuesday. The group is led by Ahmed Jibril, a longtime Assad ally.

Yarmouk is the largest of nine Palestinian camps in Syria. Since the camp’s creation in 1957, it has evolved into a densely populated residential district just five miles from the center of Damascus. Several generations of Palestinian refugees live there.

Also Tuesday, rebels claimed they shot down a military helicopter at the Taftanaz air base in the northern province of Idlib. The Observatory said the helicopter was flying toward the base.

Rebel units, including the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group, have battled army troops for weeks for control of the base, from which warplanes have been taking off on missions to bomb rebel-held areas around Syria.