- Associated Press - Thursday, February 20, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) - The relief agency supporting Palestinian refugees resumed food distribution inside the rebel-held district of the Syrian capital that has suffered from crippling shortages of food and medicine for months, a United Nations spokesman said Thursday.

The UNRWA announcement comes as Western and Arab nations supporting a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding immediate access across in Syria to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to civilians under siege called for a vote this week, even though diplomats say Russia is opposed to key provisions.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA agency that administers Palestinian refugee camps around the Middle East, said in a statement that the Syrian government granted access for relief workers to enter Yarmouk on Wednesday after an 11-day halt. He said 280 families received food parcels on Wednesday, adding that they are preparing to deliver more food to about 18,000 Yarmouk residents on Thursday.

The Yarmouk refugee camp, located in southern Damascus, is one of the hardest-hit opposition enclaves that have been under tight blockades imposed by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. More than 100 people have died in Yarmouk since mid-2013 as a result of starvation and illnesses exacerbated by hunger or lack of medical aid, according to the U.N. figures.

UNRWA staff heard passionate and vocal demands by Yarmouk civilians for substantial, sustained humanitarian access to Yarmouk, for the restoration of UNRWA services, and for Yarmouk to be rapidly opened for normal civilian life,” Gunnnes said in a statement, urging the Syrian government and the rebels to “respond positively and immediately to these demands.”

Before the conflict, Yarmouk was the largest of nine Palestinian camps in Syria. Most of the camp’s 150,000 inhabitants fled, according to UNRWA, when armed opposition fighters entered the district in late 2012, and Syrian troops surrounded the area and carried out several air strikes.

Some of them found safe haven in areas of Damascus and other Syrian cities, but most have escaped to neighboring Lebanon, where Palestinians are cramped into notoriously lawless camps.

When the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 most Palestinians in Syria stayed on the sidelines, but as the civil war reached Yarmouk in December 2012, many backed the rebels and some took up arms to fight alongside the opposition fighters, including the hard-line Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

Some Palestinian groups, however, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, has been fighting alongside Assad’s troops in Yarmouk.

Supporters of the U.N. resolution said the document had been put in its final form late Wednesday, with a vote likely on Friday. It is unclear whether Moscow will veto the resolution or abstain from the vote.

Russia is supporting Assad’s government in Syrian’s nearly 3-year-old conflict. The United States and its allies in the Europe and the Persian Gulf are backing most of the opposition that is fighting to oust Assad.

Elsewhere in Syria, fighting continued unabated around the country.

Syrian war planes carried out four airstrikes on rebel positions outside the southern city of Quinetra as heavy fighting between government troops and rebels raged in the area, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activists group reported. The group that relies on a network of activists on the ground also reported heavy clashes in several suburbs of Damascus, including Zamalka and Daraya, long-time opposition strongholds.

The Syrian army has been reinforcing its positions in Quinetra as part of an effort to dislodge rebels from the area that is near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights since the opposition named a news military chief on Monday.

Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir hails from southern Syria and was an army commander in Quneitra until 2012, when he defected to the opposition.

The notoriously divided rebel movement was thrown into disarray on Wednesday, when former leader of the Western-backed opposition’s military wing, Gen. Salim Idris, rejected his dismissal, and along with more than a dozen senior insurgent commanders severed ties with the exiled political leadership.



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