New clashes in blockaded area of Damascus halt aid

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Associated Press

Posted on March 3, 2014 at 3:32 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 4 at 3:05 AM

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Food deliveries to thousands of people living in a blockaded area in southern Damascus ground to a halt after a truce collapsed and clashes broke out between Syrian rebels and forces loyal to the government, a U.N. official and activists said on Monday.

The clashes, which erupted on Sunday afternoon and lasted until Monday morning, were the most serious violence in weeks in the Syrian capital's Palestinian-dominated district of Yarmouk and seriously undermined a tentative truce struck there in early January.

A U.N. spokesman in Damascus, Chris Gunness, urged all parties to "immediately allow" the resumption of aid to the area, where malnutrition is rife.

The U.N. "remains deeply concerned about the desperate humanitarian situation in Yarmouk, and the fact that increasing tensions and resort to armed force have disrupted its efforts to alleviate the desperate plight of civilians," Gunness said Monday.

Activists estimate that over 100 people have died of hunger or hunger-related illnesses since a blockade began nearly a year ago, preventing food and medical aid from entering Yarmouk.

The halt in the food distribution in Yarmouk also underscores problems that bedevil a Feb. 22 U.N. Security Council resolution that called on warring parties to facilitate food and aid deliveries to Syrians in need.

Also Monday, presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said presidential elections would be held on time according to the constitution. That would most probably be in the spring.

Shaaban said Syria would not accept international experts to monitor the vote.

"We are a sovereign country and we have credibility, we don't need monitors," she told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen station. Shaaban had suggested earlier that the vote might not be held because of the security situation, but on Monday, she said the situation on the ground was "improving" in light of the Syrian army's successes on the battlefield. Assad's term expires in mid-July and he has suggested he will run again. The vote must be between 60 and 90 days before that.

The latest clashes in Yarmouk sparked concerns for future aid deliveries.

"It will be like it was before. We are back to zero," said a Yarmouk-based activist who uses the name Abu Akram.

The truce, which took months to negotiate, collapsed after rebel gunmen returned to Yarmouk on Sunday, according to activists. The rebels had withdrawn from the area about a month ago as part of the truce, replaced by a patrol of Palestinian gunmen, keeping out both rebels and fighters loyal to President Bashar Assad.

The rebels accused pro-Assad fighters of violating the truce, said Abu Akram. An activist group, "Palestinians of Syria" voiced similar accusations.

On Saturday, the rebels said Assad loyalists were sneaking weapons into Yarmouk under the guise of the joint patrols, delaying food distribution and arresting young men waiting for U.N. food parcels.

A day later, the rebels returned and clashes broke out between fighters of the Free Syrian Army, a Syrian al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, and other groups, and soldiers and gunmen of Assad-loyal Palestinian groups on the other, Abu Akram said.

The clashes — a mix of gun battles, sniper fire and mortar shells — killed an ambulance driver, he added.

"Reconciliation efforts have, in my opinion, reached a deadlock," said Anwar Raja, the spokesman for the pro-Assad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command.

Assad-loyal forces initially began blockading the camp to force out rebel gunmen.

Since the uprising began three years ago against Assad's rule, blockades have played a key role in government efforts to crush rebels in their enclaves and strongholds.

The U.N. began distributing food to Yarmouk on Jan. 18 after warring parties agreed to a truce. The distribution was hindered by sporadic clashes, including on Feb. 7 and 8, said Gunness.

In total, the U.N. has distributed 7,708 food parcels to Yarmouk's 18,000 registered Palestinian refugees. Activists say there are thousands more displaced Syrians also living in the district and suffering from malnutrition and food shortages.

More than 140,000 people have been killed since March 2011, when the uprising against Assad erupted. Volunteers from across the Sunni Muslim world have joined Syrian rebel groups, in particular an al-Qaida breakaway faction. Lebanese and Iraqi Shiites, meanwhile, are fighting on the government side.

Saudi Arabia's Cabinet on Monday called for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters from Syria, demanding they face international justice if they committed war crimes there.

Riyadh is concerned that Saudi militants in Syria could turn their weapons on the kingdom and last month Saudi King Abdullah decreed it a crime for Saudi nationals to fight in foreign conflicts. The move was largely aimed at curbing extremist Saudis fighting alongside Syrian rebels.

In Lebanon, security officials said 12 rockets fired from Syria struck the eastern Lebanese town of Brital and nearby areas Monday. The rockets, which have become a near daily occurrence, caused material damage but no casualties, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Sunni extremists have targeted Shiite areas in Lebanon, calling it retaliation for the militant Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah's military backing of Assad's forces.

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Hadid reported from Beirut.

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