BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels said on Wednesday they had begun arming sympathetic Palestinians to fight a pro-Assad faction in a Palestinian enclave in Damascus - a move which could fuel spiraling intra-Palestinian violence.
Two rebel commanders told Reuters they expected their Palestinian allies to fight the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) which dominates the Yarmouk enclave - a one-time refugee camp turned sprawl of apartment blocks which is run by the Palestinians themselves.
“We’ve been arming Palestinians who are willing to fight...We have formed the Liwa al-Asifah (the Storm Brigade)which is made up of Palestinian fighters only,” a rebel commander from the Suqour al-Golan (Golan Falcons) brigade said.
“Its task is to be in charge of the Yarmouk camp. We all support it and back it,” he told Reuters.
Yarmouk lies at the heart of several southern Damascus districts which have seen heavy fighting between the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The Palestinians would be expected to attack fighters loyal to PFLP-GC chief Ahmed Jibril, who Syrian rebels accuse of harassing and attacking them to support Assad.
“Now they (the PFLP-GC fighters) are targets for us, targets for all the FSA. All of them with no exceptions,” said another rebel commander who asked not to be named.
Syria hosts half a million Palestinian refugees, mostly descendants of those admitted after the creation of Israel in 1948, and has always cast itself as a champion of the Palestinian struggle, sponsoring several guerrilla factions.
But Syria’s uprising has split Palestinian loyalties, with many ordinary Palestinians sympathetic to the uprising by their fellow Sunnis.
The Islamist Palestinian Hamas movement closed its offices in Damascus earlier this year.
Palestinians have in any case been riven by factionalism for decades, their differences exacerbated by the 1975-1990 civil war in neighboring Lebanon, where they also have a strong presence. Intra-Palestinian fighting in Syria could lead to similar tensions in Lebanon.
Residents at Yarmouk, home to about 150,000 Palestinians, said gunmen had been seen in the streets and some people kidnapped in recent days, eight of whom had been killed. It was not clear who was responsible.
A bomb exploded on Wednesday under the car of a Syrian army colonel in Yarmouk, although he was not in the vehicle, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. A Syrian rebel commander claimed responsibility, calling it a “gift to Jibril’s people which will be followed by others”.
Syria hosts many Palestinian factions which fought Israel and also each other in the 1970s and 1980s. Some like Fatah, the group of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, fought Syrian forces in Lebanon during the civil war and its fighters still bear a grudge against Assad and his late father, Hafez al-Assad.
The creation of a Palestinian rebel group could mark an opportunity to settle historic scores with the Assad dynasty.
Palestinians officials in Syria refused to comment while a Palestinian official in Lebanon said: “We do not want any Palestinian involvement in the incidents in Syria, what is happening there is an internal matter.”
Activists estimate that at least 32,000 people have been killed in the 19-month revolt against Assad.
Additional reporting Oliver Holmes; Editing by Myra MacDonald