Syria rebels make further gains

An image purportedly showing the impact of a tank shell in the Damascus suburb of Darayya (17 December 2012) The hostilities around Damascus have led to a new wave of displaced civilians

Rebels in Syria are reported to have made fresh gains as the battle for control of the country intensifies.

The rebels said they had seized the central town of Halfaya and stormed an army base near the southern city of Deraa, capturing a number of tanks.

There has also been fighting between rebels and a pro-government Palestinian group for control of two refugee camps in the south of the capital, Damascus.

Meanwhile, the prime minister has made a rare visit to Aleppo, in the north.

Wael al-Khalqi promised extra funds to meet the needs of people in the embattled city, which is half under rebel control.

Much of the surrounding countryside is also now in rebel hands.

'Ultimatum'

Not far to the south, in Hama province, the rebels have claimed further gains, declaring the town of Halfaya a "liberated area" after taking over army positions there.

Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp

  • Yarmouk camp is home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria, with more than 148,500 residents registered with the UN
  • It lies 8km (5 miles) from the centre of Damascus and resembles an urban quarter, occupying 2.1 sq km (0.8 sq miles) and containing mosques, schools and other public buildings
  • Since its establishment in 1957, refugees have built cement block homes and the camp is now densely populated. Conditions are better than at other Palestinian refugee camps in Syria
  • Many of the refugees in Yarmouk are professional, working as doctors, engineers and civil servants. Others are employed as casual labourers and street vendors

Source: UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa)

In the south, near Deraa, rebels said they stormed the base of the army's 34th Brigade, capturing a number of tanks.

And on the southern edge of Damascus, they have made significant advances in two Palestinian refugee settlements, the adjoining Yarmouk and Palestine camps, pushing out fighters from the pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) with the help of other factions.

That has exposed the areas to reprisal bombardments by government forces, leading many civilians to flee, reports the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut.

One Yarmouk resident told the AFP news agency that the mosques of the camp had broadcast an army ultimatum giving the estimated 150,000 people inside until 12:00 (10:00 GMT) to leave their homes.

In the past two days, it is estimated that about 2,000 Palestinian refugees have crossed into Lebanon, further straining already stretched resources there.

The UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees, Unrwa, which is already heavily under-funded, is appealing for extra donations to help cope with the new flow, amid fears that it is likely to increase, our correspondent adds.

Steel workers kidnapped

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation said up to 100 wounded people were being admitted each day to Damascus's main hospital.

NBC's Richard Engel: "The last five days are ones we'd rather forget"

"The most frequently observed injuries are burns, gunshots and injuries from explosions," the UN agency told reporters in Geneva. "Shortages of ointments for burns and equipment and supplies for anaesthesia and surgical interventions have been reported."

Meanwhile, Russia's foreign ministry has said that two of its nationals have been kidnapped in Syria, along with an Italian man.

The abductors were demanding a ransom from the men's employer, a steel works in the Mediterranean port town of Tartous, it added.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was undertaking "all the necessary steps both in Syria and other countries" to free them.

Meanwhile, NBC News correspondent Richard Engel and members of his production team have been freed five days after being taken prisoner by an unknown group shortly after they crossed into north-western Syria.

NBC said their release came after a firefight at a rebel-held checkpoint on Monday, and that they were now "safely out of the country".

Mr Engel later said their captors had talked "openly about their loyalty to the government" of President Bashar al-Assad, and he believed they were members of the Shabiha militia.

Map showing locations of Yarmouk and Palestine refugee camps in Damascus

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