New clashes in blockaded area of Damascus halt aid


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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - Food deliveries to thousands of people living in a blockaded area in southern Damascus ground to a halt after a truce collapsed and clashes broke out between Syrian rebels and forces loyal to the government, a U.N. official and activists said on Monday.

The clashes, which erupted out on Sunday afternoon and lasted until Monday morning, were the most serious violence in weeks in the Palestinian-dominated district of Yarmouk and seriously undermined a tentative truce struck there in early January.

A U.N. spokesman in Damascus, Chris Gunness, urged all parties to "immediately allow" the resumption of aid to the area, where malnutrition is rife.

The U.N. "remains deeply concerned about the desperate humanitarian situation in Yarmouk, and the fact that increasing tensions and resort to armed force have disrupted its efforts to alleviate the desperate plight of civilians," Gunness said Monday.

Activists estimate that over 100 people have died of hunger or hunger-related illnesses since a blockade began nearly a year ago, preventing food and medical aid from entering Yarmouk.

The halt in the food distribution in Yarmouk also underscores problems that bedevil a Feb. 22 U.N. Security Council resolution that called on warring parties to facilitate food and aid deliveries to Syrians in need.

The latest clashes also sparked concerns for future aid deliveries.

"It will be like it was before. We are back to zero," said a Yarmouk-based activist who uses the name Abu Akram.

The truce, which took months to negotiate, collapsed after rebel gunmen returned to Yarmouk on Sunday. They had withdrawn from the area about a month ago as part of the truce, replaced by a patrol of Palestinian gunmen, keeping out both rebels and fighters loyal to President Bashar Assad.

The rebels accused pro-Assad fighters of violating the truce, said Abu Akram. An activist group, "Palestinians of Syria" voiced similar accusations.

On Saturday, the rebels said Assad loyalists were sneaking weapons into Yarmouk under the guise of the joint patrols, delaying food distribution and arresting young men waiting for U.N. food parcels.

A day later, the rebels returned and clashes broke out between fighters of the Free Syrian Army, a Syrian al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, and other groups, and soldiers and gunmen of Assad-loyal Palestinian groups on the other, Abu Akram said.

The clashes _ a mix of gun battles, sniper fire and mortar shells _ killed an ambulance driver, he added.

"Reconciliation efforts have, in my opinion, reached a deadlock," said Anwar Raja, the spokesman for the pro-Assad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command.

Assad-loyal forces initially began blockading the camp to force out rebel gunmen.

Since the uprising began three years ago against Assad's rule, blockades have played a key role in government efforts to crush rebels in their enclaves and strongholds.

The U.N. began distributing food to Yarmouk on Jan. 18 after warring parties agreed to a truce. The distribution was hindered by sporadic clashes, including on Feb. 7 and 8, said Gunness.

In total, the U.N. has distributed 7,708 food parcels to Yarmouk's 18,000 registered Palestinian refugees. Activists say there are thousands more displaced Syrians also living in the district and suffering from malnutrition and food shortages.

___

Hadid reported from Beirut.


(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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