DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government forces and their allies unleashed airstrikes and intense shelling in a new operation Tuesday targeting underground tunnels used by the Islamic State group in the capital, Damascus, state TV said.
The TV said the aim of the operation is to destroy dug-out trenches and tunnels in the Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood and the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk that is also mostly controlled by IS.
A group of journalists taken to the adjacent neighborhood of Qadam on Tuesday witnessed intense shelling and airstrikes on IS positons in the camp and Hajar al-Aswad. Cracks of gunfire from street battles could be heard from the heavily damaged area.
The area in southern Damascus is the last part of the capital not controlled by President Bashar Assad’s forces. Other insurgents in the area, including an al-Qaida-linked group, have said they would relocate to rebel-held regions in northern Syria.
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“The operation will continue until its goal is achieved,” a Syrian military officer told reporters in Qadam, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations.
He added the army is also working on separating IS-held areas in Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk from the nearby rebel-held suburbs of Beit Sahem, Babila and Yalda.
Tuesday’s fighting focused on the Joura area in Hajar al-Aswad from where thick black and grey smoke rose up into the sky.
The head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said in a statement that it is deeply concerned for the fate of thousands of civilians, including Palestinian refugees, after days of fighting in Yarmouk.
UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krahenbuhl, added that the agency estimate there were about 6,000 Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk and about 6,000 in the surrounding areas, before the latest round of fighting began on Thursday.
“The humanitarian situation has long been very harsh and is rapidly deteriorating further, with supplies of food and medicine running low,” Krahenbuhl said. “There is no running water and very little electricity. Health care options are limited and there are no doctors remaining in the area.”
He said UNRWA is in a state of preparedness to open temporary shelters and provide relief and humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees within available resources.
Mroue reported from Beirut.