BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syria warned its Palestinian refugee population on Monday not to aid the insurgency that is fighting President Bashar Assad, as hundreds of Palestinians fled the Yarmouk neighborhood of Damascus, with many heading for relative safety in Lebanon, a day after Syrian forces attacked that neighborhood with airstrikes for the first time in the civil war.
The Syrian warning appeared to reflect the sensitivity Assad attaches to the loyalty of the country's Palestinians, an important element of what remains of his political legitimacy. It came as new clashes were reported in and around the Yarmouk neighborhood between government forces and rebel fighters.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in Syria, displaced by the Arab-Israeli struggle. Historically, they have considered Assad a benefactor and ally. Yarmouk was originally a refugee camp, and has developed into a mixed Damascus neighborhood where many Palestinians live -- but increasing numbers of them have been siding with the insurgents.
The warning aimed at these Palestinians was conveyed in a news dispatch by the official Syrian Arab News Agency, SANA, about a telephone conversation between the country's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, and Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations concerning the general situation in Syria and specifically the Yarmouk neighborhood.
Moallem was quoted as telling Ban that mayhem had been convulsing Yarmouk for days, caused by infiltrations from terrorist groups, the government's blanket description for insurgents.
"The minister also stressed that Palestinians should not shelter or help terrorist groups who are outsiders to the camp, and should work on evicting them," SANA said.
The SANA account said Syrian ground forces had refrained from entering Yarmouk, but said nothing about the Syrian air and artillery strikes that first hit Yarmouk on Sunday, which were reported by witnesses, rebels and Palestinian defectors to the rebel side. By some accounts, as many as 20 people were killed and dozens hurt, and families could be seen hastily fleeing the area with packed bags.
Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for Ban at the United Nations, confirmed that the secretary-general had spoken with the Syrian foreign minister to express concern "about the escalation of violence in recent days, and very specifically the incident yesterday in which a Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, right near Damascus, came under attack."