A Free Syrian Army rebel fighter looks at the body of a government soldier… (Manu Brabo, Associated…)
BEIRUT — Battles raged Sunday in a sprawling Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus as Syrian government troops pressed an offensive against rebels on the outskirts of the capital.
Opposition activists reported at least eight killed when rockets from Syrian fighter jets struck near the Abdul Qader Husseini mosque in the Yarmouk camp, on the southern fringes of Damascus. Video said to be from the scene shows blood-streaked pavement and wounded people lying amid the rubble.
The reported airstrike on Yarmouk would mark the first time that the government had used warplanes to target the camp, a densely populated urban zone that is home to tens of thousands, both Palestinians and non-Palestinians.
The camp, like much of Syria's half-million-strong Palestinian population, has experienced divided loyalties during the 21-month rebellion against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Some Palestinians have remained loyal to Assad's administration, which has trumpeted itself as an unyielding defender of the Palestinian cause. Others have sided with the rebels and even enlisted in their ranks.
Yarmouk camp has previously seen periodic street fighting and mortar attacks, with some of the violence spilling over from adjacent, rebel-dominated districts.
A major pro-Assad Palestinian faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, confirmed in a statement that explosions had occurred near the Husseini mosque and the Fallouja School. The group said it could neither "confirm nor refute" reports of aerial bombardment.
The explosions came after more than 1,500 members of "armed gangs" — a government label for rebel fighters — breached the camp confines, the Popular Front said, adding that loyalist "popular councils" confronted the rebels.
According to the Popular Front statement, all of the attacking rebels were members of Al Nusra Front, an Islamist rebel group that the Obama administration blacklisted last week as an alleged affiliate of Al Qaeda.
The Syrian government has insisted it is under siege from foreign-backed "terrorists." In press statements, Syrian authorities have in recent weeks increasingly blamed attacks on Al Nusra Front. The group has a reputation as a fierce and disciplined fighting force with considerable expertise in making car bombs and other improvised explosives. Al Nusra Front is one of scores of fighting units in the fragmented rebel force fighting to topple Assad.
Press TV, Iran's English-language media service, reported Sunday that Ahmed Jibril, head of the pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, left the Syrian capital after the clashes in Yarmouk broke out. The Iranian news outlet said that Jibril left for the Mediterranean port city of Tartus, a bastion of support for Assad and a haven of relative tranquillity in strife-torn Syria.
The government has ramped up use of warplanes and helicopters against rebel forces across the country. During the last few weeks, Assad's forces have been using air power and artillery to pummel rebels in the approaches to Damascus, seeking to thwart any opposition advance into the capital.
On Sunday, apart from the attacks in Yarmouk, the government said its forces had killed "scores of terrorists" in several rebel strongholds outside Damascus, including Zamalka and Duma in the northeast and Dariya to the southwest.
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman, Jordan.