Up to 12 killed as Palestinian refugees are drawn into Syria revolt

Assad regime accused of hijacking the Naksa to distract attention from Syrian uprising as shooting breaks out when crowd of angry Palestinians descended on Damascus HQ of group that organised protests on Israeli border in which 15 to 20 people died.

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DAMASCUS // Up to a dozen protesting Palestinians have been killed by security guards in a Damascus suburb, in a sign that Syria's large Palestinian refugee community is slowly being sucked into an increasingly bloody national uprising.

The shootings took place on Monday afternoon and evening, according to residents of the sprawling Yarmouk Camp neighbourhood, when a large crowd of Palestinians descended on the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC).

Thousands strong, the crowd threw stones at the faction's offices before setting fire to the building and cars.

PFLP-GC security guards - all Palestinians, not Syrians - armed with assault rifles then shot directly into the crowd.

"They were shooting at people, not above their heads. Many people were killed and wounded," said Abu Amar, a 50-year-old Palestinian who lives close by and was hit by a ricochet while trying to calm the situation.

In hospital for treatment, Abu Amar said medical staff told him 13 or 14 people had been shot dead, and more injured. Syrian media mentioned an "incident", but gave no details or comment on casualties, which cannot be verified.

Gunfire could be heard above Yarmouk until the early hours of yesterday morning, with sporadic shooting throughout the night as protesters defied a curfew and continued to vent their rage against the PFLP-GC buildings. The offices of Hamas, which are near by, were left untouched.

The clashes came the day after unarmed Palestinian refugees and displaced Syrians from the occupied Golan Heights tried to cross into the Israeli controlled side of the territory.

Israeli soldiers on the de-facto border began shooting, killing between 10 and 25 protesters and wounding scores more, according to the Syrian authorities.

That protest, organised at least in part by the PFLP-GC, was controversial among Palestinians in Syria. Many believed it had nothing to do with their own national struggle against Israel and was designed to benefit the Syrian authorities as they try to put down an uprising by pro-democracy activists.

The Sunday march in the Golan Heights had coincided with the commemoration of the Naksa, or setback, when Israeli forces defeated Arab armies in the 1967 war.

"After Sunday, there was a lot of debate in Palestinian homes about what had happened," one local resident said. "People were asking why this has happened now. For the past 43 years on the anniversary of the Naksa there has been no protest in the Golan Heights, but suddenly this year we see one and our young people are killed."

Some of the dead from Sunday's shootings were buried in the martyrs' cemetery in Yarmouk the following day, with 50,000 mourners joining the funeral procession.

According to people who attended, problems started when Ahmed Jibril, veteran leader of PFLP-GC, tried to make a speech, which the mourners angrily rejected. As they pushed towards him, his bodyguards fired warning shots into the air.

The crowd then began to chant "the people want the overthrow of the factions" and "the people want the overthrow of Jibril", slogans that mirror those shouted by anti-government demonstrators in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring uprisings.

Afterwards the crowd took their protest to the PFLP-GC offices in Yarmouk, where the fatal shootings took place.

The PFLP-GC is considered by Palestinians in Syria to be close to the Syrian security services, and some insist it is nothing more than a branch of Syria's mukhabarat, or secret police.

Other Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Fatah, both strongly represented in Syria's 500,000 strong refugee community, have been at pains to stay neutral amid Syria's internal strife.

In contrast, some Palestinian residents in Damascus neighbourhoods where anti-government protests have taken place say PFLP-GC gunmen have joined in suppressing the demonstrations.

Suspicions about the group have only increased after the Naksa protest, which, critics say, was designed to divert attention away from the Syrian government's domestic crackdown in which human rights groups say more than 1,000 civilians died, and direct national ire at Israel, the traditional enemy.

"There is a reason why the PFLP-GC office was burned, while the Hamas office was not touched," said an independent Syrian political analyst specialising in Palestinian affairs. "Hamas has remained independent while the PFLP has openly sided with the Syrian government.

"The Palestinian people were sending a strong message to everyone that they do not want to be used as a bargaining chip in an internal Syrian argument."

However, more marches on the Golan Heights seem assured. Tishreen, a Syrian government-run newspaper, yesterday warned Israel to expect a similar event "at any time". Syria and Israel have been at war for decades over the Jewish state's illegal annexation of the Golan Heights.

More protests could backfire on the Syrian authorities, the independent analyst said, with ordinary Palestinian refugees even being pushed to joining anti-government demonstrations.

"Most Palestinians sympathise with the protesters but they have kept quiet because they say it is not their business to interfere," he said. "But if they start being used as a pawn in those protests, they may decide the time has come to pick a side, and they might not choose the government's."

Military units were moving towards Jisr al Shughour in northwestern Syria yesterday after the government vowed to use force to "restore security" in the town. Syrian authorities claim 120 police officers were killed by insurgents there on Monday, an account rejected by opposition activists.

More than 70 civilians have been killed in Jisr al Shughour since Saturday, according to human rights groups.