DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Five civilians were killed in heavy fighting around a Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital and rebels withdrew from a northwestern town after a night of clashes in intensifying violence across the country Tuesday.
Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi renewed a call for opposition figures to enter into a dialogue for peace offered by President Bashar Assad, despite domestic and rebel groups rejecting the proposal.
Palestinian factions in Syria called for a cease-fire Tuesday after fighting flared at the main Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, highlighting a split among Palestinians as the civil war intensifies.
The camp has been the scene of heavy clashes in the past, but the battles subsided last month after Syrian rebels fighting to topple Assad, battled loyalists there to a standstill.
The five were killed on Yarmouk Street, four of them when a shell exploded and the fifth in sniper fire, according to the opposition Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights that relies on reports from activists on the ground.
The group said intense clashes were taking place on the edges of the camp. In a statement, representatives of 14 Damascus-based Palestinian factions called for a cease-fire and a halt to all military operations to enable medical teams and food supply trucks to enter the camp. They urged gunmen to withdraw from the camp “in order not to bear the responsibility for the continuing displacement of [Yarmouk’s] residents.”
About half of Yarmouk’s 150,000 residents have fled since fighting erupted in mid-December, according to estimates by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees.
Dozens have been killed in the violence that has included airstrikes and artillery shelling from the Syrian military and clashes between rebels and Assad loyalists.
Khaled Abdul-Majid, a senior representative of the Palestinian factions that issued the statement, told reporters in Damascus, “We are working to end those clashes.”
An UNRWA spokesman told the Associated Press Syrian forces continue to block the camp’s entrances, though residents were allowed to retrieve personal belongings. All UNRWA facilities in the camp remain closed.
When the revolt against Assad’s rule began in March 2011, the half-million-strong Palestinian community in Syria stayed on the sidelines. As the civil war deepened, most Palestinians backed the rebels, while some groups – such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command – have been fighting alongside the troops. The PFLP-GC joined the call for a truce Tuesday. The group is led by Ahmad Jibril, a long-time Assad ally.
On the outskirts of the capital Tuesday Syrian troops bombarded rebel bastions before dawn.
Troops shelled the towns of Maliha and Beit Saham to the southeast of the capital near the Damascus airport road and the town of Douma to the northeast, the Observatory said.
It added that army reinforcements were also arriving at Daraya in a bid to regain control of the town, where hundreds were killed in August in the bloodiest massacre of the 21-month conflict.
The Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists on the ground, reported that Daraya and nearby Moadamiyet al-Sham came under heavy shelling from the elite Fourth Division and Brigade 105 stationed in the area.
In violence in the north of the country Tuesday, the army drove rebels out of Mastuma, just south of the provincial capital of Idlib, with the support of a “special operations battalion,” a military source told AFP.
Displaced residents said troops stormed the town during the night, clashing with rebels and executing a number of residents.
They said snipers were deployed throughout the town and troops stationed in the nearby ruling Baath party camp, which the Observatory said was turned into a military detention center in summer 2011.
The camp is a strategic target because it contains the largest concentration of tanks in the area and sizeable stores of weapons and ammunition.
In nearby Taftanaz air base, rebels claimed they shot down a military helicopter they said had been flying toward the base.
Rebel units, including the Islamist Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham brigade, have battled army troops for weeks for control of the base, from which warplanes have been taking off on missions to bomb rebel-held areas around Syria.
Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said army units fought back rebels in several areas of Idlib province, “killing several terrorists, injuring many others, and destroying their weapons.” In Damascus, Interior Minister Mohammad Shaar, who was seriously wounded when a bomb hit his ministry in Damascus last month, attended a Cabinet meeting to discuss Assad’s initiative to end the civil war. In a broadcast of Tuesday’s meeting on Syrian state TV, Shaar was seen with a bandaged right hand and a scar on his forehead.
Syria’s Information Minister Zohbi, Tuesday renewed a call for a dialogue process, saying the invitation was “to all opposition forces to join a dialogue based on respect for national sovereignty and a rejection of foreign intervention of all kinds,” according to the state news agency SANA.
But he then qualified that by saying the government would be contacting “all political forces and personalities that are patriotic” to take part.
Britain will hold a two-day meeting on Syria starting Wednesday, officials said, bringing together academics and the opposition to prepare for a future without Assad. Experts in post-conflict stabilization will join representatives from regional Arab partners, multilateral agencies and the leadership of the opposition Syrian National Coalition for the closed-door talks, the Foreign Office announced.