BEIRUT: Fighters proclaiming allegiance to Islamic State seized most of a vast camp for Palestinian refugees on the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday, a bid to capture the group’s first major foothold close to President Bashar al-Assad’s seat of power.
Islamic State fighters already control swathes of eastern Syria and northern Iraq and are facing an international campaign of air strikes led by the United States.
Until now they did not have a major presence in the area around the capital, where insurgents have mainly been loyal to other groups.
The Yarmouk refugee camp, home to half a million Palestinians before the conflict began in 2011, has been held by anti-Assad insurgents and besieged by government troops since the early days of the war. It is a few kilometres from the heart of Damascus, which is still firmly in government hands.
Mirroring the way Islamic State has grown elsewhere in Syria, its fighters seized control of areas of the camp from other insurgents, helped by rebels from the rival al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front who switched sides, a political activist in the area said.
“They pushed from the Hajar Aswad area and Nusra fighters have joined them, they have pledged loyalty to Daesh (Islamic State),” the activist said, speaking via Skype.
Anwar Abdel Hadi, the Palestine Liberation Organisation representative in Damascus, said: “(Islamic State) went into Yarmouk today.
There are clashes between the militants at the moment.”