BEIRUT (AP) — The relief agency supporting Palestinian refugees resumed food distribution inside the rebel-held district of the Syrian capital that has suffered from crippling shortages of food and medicine for months, a United Nations spokesman said Thursday.
The UNRWA announcement comes as Western and Arab nations supporting a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding immediate access across Syria to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid called for a vote on the measure this week, even though diplomats say Russia is opposed to key provisions.
Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. agency that administers Palestinian refugee camps around the Middle East, said in a statement that the Syrian government granted access for relief workers to enter Yarmouk on Wednesday after an 11-day halt. He said 280 families received food parcels on Wednesday and that workers are preparing to deliver more food to about 18,000 Yarmouk residents on Thursday.
The Yarmouk refugee camp, located in southern Damascus, is one of the hardest-hit opposition enclaves that have been under tight blockades imposed by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. More than 100 people have died in Yarmouk since mid-2013 as a result of starvation and illnesses exacerbated by hunger or lack of medical aid, according to U.N. figures.
Before the conflict, Yarmouk was the largest of nine Palestinian camps in Syria. Most of the camp's 150,000 inhabitants fled, according to UNRWA, when armed opposition fighters entered the district in late 2012. Syrian troops surrounded the area and carried out several air strikes.
When the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 most Palestinians in Syria stayed on the sidelines, but as the civil war reached Yarmouk in December 2012, many backed the rebels and some took up arms to fight alongside the opposition fighters, including the hard-line Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front.
Some Palestinian groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command have been fighting alongside Assad's troops in Yarmouk.
Supporters of the U.N. aid resolution said the document had been put in its final form late Wednesday, with a vote likely on Friday. It is unclear whether Moscow will veto the resolution or abstain from the vote.
Russia is supporting Assad's government in Syria's nearly 3-year-old conflict. The United States and its allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf are backing most of the opposition that is fighting to oust Assad.
The uprising started as peaceful protests against Assad's rule. It gradually turned into civil war that has increasingly been fought along sectarian lines, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad's government that is dominated by Alawites, a sect in Shiite Islam.
Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency said Thursday that it plans to send 43 shipping containers full of relief supplies to Syria from Dubai. The shipment will travel through the Suez Canal before landing in Tartous, Syria, to be distributed, UNHCR Senior Logistics officer Soliman Daud said.
On Thursday, Syrian war planes carried out four airstrikes on rebel positions outside the southern city of Quinetra as heavy fighting between government troops and rebels raged in the area, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group reported. The group that relies on a network of activists on the ground also reported heavy clashes in several suburbs of Damascus, including Zamalka and Daraya, longtime opposition strongholds.
The Syrian army has been reinforcing its positions in Quinetra as part of an effort to dislodge rebels from the area that is near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Syria's sectarian fight has spilled over into neighboring Lebanon, where clashes between Lebanese Sunnis, backing Syrian rebels, and gunmen from the pro-Assad Alawite community frequently have erupted in the northern city of Tripoli.
An Alawite military leader from a pro-Assad party in Lebanon was killed in Tripoli on Thursday, according to reports by Lebanon's state news agency. The killing of Abdul Rahman Diab of the Arab Democratic Party likely will deepen sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.