- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 19, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian troops carried out a broad offensive against rebels in the suburbs of Damascus, the state media said Wednesday, as the United Nations appealed for $1 billion to support rising numbers of Syrian refugees.

The state-run SANA news agency said troops have killed “scores of terrorists,” the government term for the rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

The suburbs of the Syrian capital have been opposition strongholds since the uprising started in March 2011.

The rebels recently have made significant advances in the area, capturing air bases and military installations and clashing with a pro-government Palestinian group for control of the Yarmouk refugee camp, located in the capital’s southern part.

SANA said Wednesday’s fighting took place in the capital’s southern outskirts of Daraya, Harasta, Douma and Hajar Aswad, an area neighboring Yarmouk.

On Tuesday, Syrian fighter jets bombed Yarmouk for the second time in a week, sending thousands fleeing from the camp. There were no reports on casualties from those strikes.

Similar airstrikes on Sunday killed at least eight people in Yarmouk, activists said.

The rebel offensive in the camp, which began Friday, is aimed at driving out pro-government Palestinian gunmen of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

Most of the fighting Wednesday was concentrated on surrounding districts outside the camp, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It said the rebels took control of large parts of the camp after resistance from the PFLP-GC gunmen ceased that morning. The group relies on reports from activists on the ground.

Since the camp’s creation in 1957, it has evolved into a densely populated residential district just five miles away from the center of Damascus.

Several generations of refugees live there, some employed as doctors, engineers and civil servants and others as day laborers and street vendors. Many Syrians also have moved into the camp area over the years.

When the revolt against Mr. Assad’s rule began 21 months ago, 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, Mr. Assad’s longtime ally.

The fighting in the camp has forced an exodus of Palestinian refugees and Syrians who came to the camp in past weeks to escape violence elsewhere in the city, according to U.N. officials.

More than two-thirds of the nearly 150,000 Palestinian residents of Yarmouk have left the camp since Friday, when the fighting flared up, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

They either have sought shelter in the outskirts of the camp, in other parts of Damascus or other Syrian cities or have headed to the Syria-Lebanon border, said Sami Mshasha, an UNRWA spokesman.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he had asked U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to help in bringing the Palestinian refugees in Syria to the Palestinian territories. This could include the West Bank, where Mr. Abbas governs, or the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The statement said there are 450,000 Palestinian refugees living in 10 camps in Syria. Mr. Abbas said Yarmouk, which is the biggest camp, “has been through a difficult situation due to the escalating conflict in Syria.”

Any movement of refugees into the West Bank would need the consent of Israel. The Israeli Foreign Ministry had no comment.

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