Islamic State fighters stormed the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus on Wednesday, continuing their push into regime-controlled parts of Syria and battling mostly local Palestinian groups as they seized control of some sections of the besieged camp.
Before the conflict in Syria began, Yarmouk was home to 150,000 refugees, mostly third and fourth generation Palestinians who fled or were forced out of their homeland in the 1940s when Israel was established. The camp became a battleground between Syrian rebel groups and regime forces after the civil war erupted, and its population has since plummeted to around 18,000. It has effectively been under siege since 2012, leaving the residents to starve to death as they were cut off from food, clean water, and other essentials.
The latest incursion, which took place as Syrian regime forces bombed the camp, was reported by both Palestinian officials and Syrian activists, and confirmed to VICE News by a number of local sources.
Unconfirmed reports have suggested that al Nusra Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, may have facilitated the militant offensive. Members of Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, a Palestinian group loosely and unofficially affiliated with Hamas, pushed back against their advance.
"Daesh have been clashing with Akhnaf since the morning; most people remain hiding in their homes," an activist in the camp told VICE News, using an acronym that spells out the Islamic State's full Arabic name. "The situation is already terrible but there has also been a huge amount of shelling, probably from the regime, that has targeted a hospital and other civilian areas."
Syria Direct, an independent website that monitors the conflict, reported that the Islamic State's offensive appeared to be in retaliation for the kidnapping of several of its members by the Palestinian group.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Islamic State had been battling other groups around the camp, and that the militants were suffering casualties but advancing.
"Fighters from ISIS launched an assault this morning on Yarmouk and they took over the majority of the camp," Anwar Abdel Hadi, director of political affairs for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Damascus, told AFP.
It remains unclear how much of the camp the Islamic State fighters have actually seized. Local sources told VICE News the offensive seemed to have been launched from Hajjar al Aswad, a neighborhood near the camp where the militant group has had a presence for a while.
The video below, shared by local anti-regime activists, reportedly shows smoke over Yarmouk following regime bombings, which also hit a local hospital and killed a prominent anti-regime activist in the camp.
Representatives for UNRWA, the UN agency working with Palestinian refugees across the region, which has intermittently been able to deliver aid to the camp, told VICE News in a statement that they are "extremely concerned about the safety and protection of Syrian and Palestinian civilians in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus."
"Since early afternoon today, intensive armed conflict has been ongoing between armed groups present in the area," Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the agency, wrote in an email. "Credible information from public sources indicates that a variety of armed groups are engaged in fierce fighting in areas where Yarmouk's 18,000 civilians, including some 3,500 children reside, placing them at extreme risk of death, serious injury, trauma and displacement.
"UNRWA demands from all parties respect for and compliance with their obligations to ensure the protection of civilians in Yarmouk," he added. "UNRWA further demands an end to the fighting and a return to conditions that will enable its staff to support and assist Yarmouk's civilians."
The agency has previously said Palestinians "trapped" in the camp were living in a "desperate humanitarian situation."
"We are waiting in our homes for things to calm down," a local resident told VICE News. "We are starving, and dying, and now ISIS is trying to come into the camp again. The situation in the camp always gets worse and harder for us to live in."
Talal Ayan contributed reporting. Follow him on Twitter: @talalalyan
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi