UNRWA workers at the Yarmouk camp
UNRWA workers at the Yarmouk campReuters

The Syrian army has been using starvation as a "weapon of war" in its siege of the Yarmouk camp for “Palestinian refugees” outside Damascus, Amnesty International said on Monday, according to AFP.

In a report on the plight of Palestinian and Syrian civilians in Yarmouk, the group said nearly 200 people have died since an army siege was tightened in July 2013 and access to food and medicine cut.

The document, entitled "Squeezing the life out of Yarmouk: War crimes against besieged civilians," said 128 of the deaths were caused by starvation.

"Life in Yarmouk has grown increasingly unbearable for desperate civilians who find themselves starving and trapped in a downward cycle of suffering with no means of escape," Amnesty's Philip Luther said in a statement quoted by AFP.

Amnesty said the siege of Yarmouk was "the deadliest of a series of armed blockades of other civilian areas, imposed by Syrian armed forces or armed opposition groups on a quarter of a million people across the country."

Yarmouk is a suburb of Damascus that began as a refugee camp for Arabs who had fled Israel in times of war, and their descendants. Originally home to more than 150,000 residents, Yarmouk became a ghost town when the fighting in the Syrian civil war reached the camp, pitting rebels against fighters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, who are loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad..

Syrian troops have laid siege to the camp as near-daily battles rage between rebels and pro-regime fighters.

While tens of thousands of Yarmouk's residents have fled, some 20,000 are still trapped inside the camp, facing hardship and hunger, according to the UN refugee agency UNRWA.

Amnesty also charged that government forces and their allies have repeatedly launched attacks, including air raids and shelling with heavy weapons, on civilian buildings in the camp.

"Launching indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, leading to deaths and injuries, is a war crime," it said.

"To repeatedly strike a heavily populated area, where the civilians have no means of escape, demonstrates a ruthless attitude and a callous disregard for the most basic principles of international humanitarian law," Luther said, according to AFP.

Amnesty also said at least 60 percent of those who have remained in Yarmouk are said to be suffering from malnutrition, with residents not having eaten fruit or vegetables for months.

Several months ago, disturbing video footage from the camp was uploaded to the Internet, showing skeletal figures lying on stretchers and hospital beds. 

"Syrian forces are committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war," Luther said.

"The harrowing accounts of families having to resort to eating cats and dogs, and civilians attacked by snipers as they forage for food, have become all too familiar details of the horror story that has materialized in Yarmouk."

It said aid delivered to the camp was "woefully inadequate to meet basic needs."

Children and the elderly had suffered the most, according to the report. "Eighteen children including babies have died. Complications have also arisen from residents eating inedible or poisonous plants and dog meat," said Amnesty.

The crisis in Yarmouk has been getting limited coverage in world media, while Israel has wrongly been singled out for its supposed "siege" of Gaza, which consistently receives humanitarian aid from Israel.

Even an Arab TV host on Al Jazeera television noted in a recent program that Syria's government is treating its citizens far worse than colonial France or Israel ever did.