The Syrian army has been using starvation as a “weapon of war” in its siege of the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, Amnesty International said yesterday.
In a report on the plight of Palestinian and Syrian civilians in Yarmuk, the rights watchdog said nearly 200 people have died since an army siege was tightened in July last year, and access to food and medicine cut.
The document, titled Squeezing the life out of Yarmuk: War crimes against besieged civilians, said 128 of the deaths were caused by starvation.
“Life in Yarmuk has grown increasingly unbearable for desperate civilians who find themselves starving and trapped in a downward cycle of suffering with no means of escape,” Amnesty’s Philip Luther said in a statement.
Amnesty said the siege of Yarmuk was “the deadliest of a series of armed blockades of other civilian areas, imposed by Syrian armed forces or armed opposition groups on a quarter of a million people across the country.”
Syrian troops have laid siege to the camp as near-daily battles rage between rebels and pro-regime fighters in the sprawling southern Damascus suburb.
The violence has prompted the exodus of tens of thousands of Yarmuk’s 170,000 residents. About 20,000 are still trapped inside the camp, facing hardship and hunger, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency.
Amnesty also charged that government forces and their allies have repeatedly launched attacks, including air raids and shelling with heavy weapons, on civilian buildings in the camp.
“Launching indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, leading to deaths and injuries, is a war crime,” it said.
“To repeatedly strike a heavily populated area, where the civilians have no means of escape, demonstrates a ruthless attitude and a callous disregard for the most basic principles of international humanitarian law,” Luther said.
Amnesty also said at least 60 percent of those who have remained in Yarmuk are said to be suffering from malnutrition, with residents not having eaten fruit or vegetables for months.
“Syrian forces are committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war,” Luther said. “The harrowing accounts of families having to resort to eating cats and dogs, and civilians attacked by snipers as they forage for food, have become all too familiar details of the horror story that has materialized in Yarmuk.”
In other developments, a group of nuns kidnapped by rebels in the Syrian town of Maalula in December last year were released early yesterday thanks to Lebanese-Qatari mediation and handed to the Syrian authorities.
A monitoring group said the release was secured in exchange for about 150 female prisoners who were being held in Syria’s regime jails.
The 13 nuns and three maids were kidnapped from the famed Christian hamlet of Maalula and taken to the nearby Syrian rebel town of Yabrud, where they were held by the al-Nusra Front.
Their release comes amid fierce fighting around Yabrud near the Lebanese border, months into a campaign by the army — backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah — that was aimed at crushing rebel positions there.
The nuns arrived at Jdeidet Yabus after midnight on the Syrian side of the border with Lebanon, after an arduous nine-hour journey that took them from Yabrud into Lebanon, then back into Syria via the official crossing.