Some 200 fighters belonging to Tahrir al-Sham, al-Qaida’s franchise in Syria, vacated Yarmouk refugee camp along with their families on Tuesday as part of a deal reached by the group and the Syrian and Russian governments over previous days.
Tahrir al-Sham controlled approximately 15 percent of the camp prior to its evacuation. The rest of Yarmouk is controlled by Islamic State insurgents, which the Syrian army aims to imminently purge from the camp located to the south of Damascus.
Under the framework of the deal, the evacuated fighters and their families were taken to Idlib province in northern Syria.
Meanwhile militants released dozens of hostages kidnapped in rural Idlib when they seized territory in the area three years ago. The evacuation deal also allows for people to leave two pro-government villages, al-Foua and Kefraya, encircled by insurgents in Idlib.
Civilians buried under rubble
On Tuesday the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria stated that the bodies of at least 20 Palestinian civilians are believed to be buried under the rubble of their homes in Yarmouk, where a Syrian military offensive began nearly two weeks ago.
The bodies haven’t been removed due to the lack of civil defense workers and necessary equipment in the camp.
A couple and their baby, presumed killed during bombing of the camp on 21 April, were found alive under the rubble of their home six days later.
The Action Group has recorded the deaths of 15 civilians in Yarmouk since the military operation began on 19 April.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, an ally of the Syrian government, announced that one of its fighters had been killed and 12 others injured by Islamic State mortar fire while buses entered the camp to evacuate Tahrir al-Sham fighters on Tuesday.
Further damage was reported in already devastated Yarmouk on Tuesday night as army minesweeping vehicles caused explosions in the camp and Syrian and Russian warplanes launched air raids in their campaign to purge Islamic State.
Activists warned ahead of the evacuation of Tahrir al-Sham fighters that some civilians in areas under the armed group’s control were refusing to leave their homes for fear of arrest by Syrian government forces and their allies. They called on the Palestine Liberation Organization to intervene to ensure their protection.
On Monday it was reported that the Syrian authorities had arrested Palestinian refugee Mahmoud Omar at a checkpoint handed over by Tahrir al-Sham as he was trying to leave Yarmouk.
Last week UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, warned of “the catastrophic consequences of the severe escalation of fighting affecting” Yarmouk and its surroundings.
The agency’s commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl stated that “We are deeply concerned about the fate of thousands of civilians, including Palestine refugees, after more than a week of dramatically increased violence.”
UNRWA said that more than 5,000 Palestinian refugees were displaced from Yarmouk into neighboring Yalda during the ongoing military campaign. Those who managed to flee the camp “have been forced to sleep in the streets or in makeshift shelters,” the agency added.
“We call for the immediate granting of safe passage for civilians wishing to leave the camp and surrounding areas and for the evacuation of the injured, the sick and the elderly,” UNRWA stated.
The only remaining hospital in Yarmouk was reportedly destroyed in an air raid on 22 April.
Infectious diseases have previously broken out in the camp due to the poor state of medicine and hygiene after years of siege and fighting between armed groups and attacks by government forces on Yarmouk.
Once home to 150,000 residents, Yarmouk was formerly the largest Palestinian population center in Syria before it became an arena of fighting in December 2012. Thousands fled after rebel forces infiltrated the camp and its central mosque was hit in government airstrikes.
Since then, electricity and water supplies to the camp have been cut and a complete siege was imposed by government forces and allied groups in July 2013.
Dozens in the camp starved to death that following winter, and many more were killed during clashes and ongoing shelling and strikes on Yarmouk.
In April 2015, the camp was infiltrated by fighters with the Islamic State group and various armed factions have continued to battle for control of this southern gateway to Syria’s capital.
UNRWA has been unable to deliver humanitarian aid directly to Yarmouk since it was seized by Islamic State.