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Yarmouk Siege: U.N. Announces Trip to Syria Amid Humanitarian Crisis

The United Nations group responsible for Palestinian refugees said Saturday that its top official would make an “urgent mission” to Syria.
/ Source: NBC News

The United Nations group responsible for Palestinian refugees said Saturday that its top official would make what it calls an “urgent mission” to Syria in order to seek a resolution to the deepening humanitarian crisis at the Yarmouk Camp.

Yarmouk, a neighborhood home to 18,000 refugees outside Damascus, has been cut off from food and aid delivery for nearly two weeks, said the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. ISIS militants arrived at the neighborhood on April 1st, sealing it off from humanitarian aid. Fighting erupted between the terror network and other militant groups, even as the regime of Bashar Assad bombarded the area as part of its ongoing war with militants and other opposition fighters.

“The visit is prompted by UNRWA's deepening concerns for the safety and protection of some 18,000 Palestinian and Syrian civilians, including 3,500 children, as Yarmouk remains under the control of armed groups,” UNRWA said in a statement Saturday.

The statement said the organization's commissioner general, Pierre Krahenbuhl, would consult with the government of Syria "to exchange views on peaceful approaches to addressing the humanitarian consequences of the situation in Yarmouk."

The statement also said Krahenbuhl would travel to a government school building in the Tadamoun neighborhood, to the east of Yarmouk, to meet people displaced by the violence.

Saturday's trip is the latest step the U.N. has taken to resolve the crisis.

The U.N. has called repeatedly for a pause in fighting in order to allow for humanitarian aid, and for safe passage for refugees willing to leave. On Monday, Krahenbuhl briefed a special session of the U.N. Security Council. On Thursday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon described Yarmouk as the “deepest circle of hell,” telling reporters that the refugee camp is “beginning to resemble a death camp.”

The trip also occurs against the backdrop of criticism by local aid groups, which have been forced to flee the mounting violence at Yarmouk. Earlier this week, the director of a Palestinian aid group said he was puzzled by U.N. calls for humanitarian access to Yarmouk.

“Nobody can get in,” said Wasem Sabaaneh, who directs an NGO that until last week delivered aid inside the camp.

Men walk past destroyed buildings in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on April 6.YOUSSEF KARWASHAN / AFP - Getty Images

NBC News reached Sabaaneh earlier this week in Beirut. His group, the Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development, pulled out of Yarmouk and closed its mission there after a volunteer member was killed by ISIS sniper fire. Sabaaneh says other local relief organizations have left, too, and that the main hospital in Yarmouk Camp is also closed because of lack of supplies.

"How they will have access to Yarmouk Camp if there is ISIS control?” Sabaaneh said. “Who will be there to send food, drugs, or any kind of humanitarian help inside Yarmouk Camp if there is ISIS control?”

But with Saturday’s trip, U.N. officials appear determined to try to find a solution.

“Yarmouk is at the lower reaches of hell. It must not be allowed to descend further,” UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness told NBC News on Friday. “All diplomatic, economic and religious levers must be pulled to influence the parties on the ground.”