Militants from the Islamic State (IS) group have infiltrated and taken over parts of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, a district eight kilometers south of the center of the Syrian capital, Damascus, according to Palestinian officials and a monitoring group.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) told AFP that IS gunmen launched an assault in the morning of April 1 and took over most of the camp.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) also reported clashes between IS militants and fighters from a Palestinian faction named Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis around the Yarmouk camp particularly in the al-Hajar al-Aswad district on its southern edges. SOHR said there were reports of IS advances inside the camp, as well as IS losses.
If IS militants have gained control over Yarmouk, this would be the deepest that the extremist Sunni group has managed to penetrate into the Syrian capital.
The move by IS to take over Yarmouk, from where they can pose a more serious threat to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, did not come out of the blue, however.
IS gunmen have had a presence on the southern edges of Yarmouk in the al-Hajar al-Aswad area, according to Charles Lister, an expert on the Syrian civil war and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. According to Lister, IS has been infiltrating the camp for some weeks.
In a March 23 paper for Brookings, Lister noted that IS is "not only surviving in its areas of current control in Syria's north and east, but it is covertly infiltrating areas further south, including the capital, Damascus."
Charlie Winter, a researcher on Syria and Iraq at the Britain-based Quilliam Foundation, also said that IS expansion to the south of Yarmouk had "long been expected."
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), around 18,000 Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk camp are under siege by Syrian government forces in one part of the camp and by rebels in another.
At the beginning of March, UNRWA told The Guardian that it had not been able to deliver food to the camp for 12 weeks. There were reports of "people dying of malnutrition and women dying in childbirth but nothing can be confirmed," according to UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness.
Before the Syrian crisis began, Yarmouk -- still called a "camp" though its original tents have long been replaced by solid housing -- had previously been home to upward of 150,000 Palestinians and was the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria. Some 650,000 Syrians lived alongside the Palestinians in Yarmouk.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk