Thousands flee Palmyra, UNHCR steps up aid

The town of Palmyra was overrun this week by anti-government militants along with its World Heritage-listed archaeological sites. Some 11,000 people fled westwards.

Fakhreddin's Castle in the historical archaeological site of Palmyra, which was overrun earlier this week by militants.  © Reuters/N.Fourat

DAMASCUS, Syria, May 22 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency and its partners are preparing aid for some 11,000 people who fled the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra and surrounding villages when they were overrun by militant forces this week.

Situated in central Syria, Palmyra had been sheltering thousands of people forcibly displaced from other parts of Syria for the past three years. It was reportedly captured from the Syrian army on Wednesday, along with the nearby World Heritage-listed archaeological sites.

About 8,000 people have found shelter in the village of Al-Qarayateen and a further 3,000 fled to nearby Furglus village. The displaced are staying with relatives or schools in the villages, which are located about 75 kilometres to the west of Palmyra.

The Al-Birr Society, a local implementing partner, has started to distribute UNHCR aid and prepare reception centres. "People are arriving exhausted, scared and in increasing numbers," said Bhajat Al Arandas, an Al-Birr Society official. "They fled their homes in Palmyra and neighbouring villages with hardly anything and report there is no water, electricity or working mobile phone network [in Palmyra]."

The refugee agency is now sending more relief supplies to Al-Qarayateen and Furglus to meet the rising needs, though UNHCR expects new arrivals will move further west towards the city of Homs.

UNHCR teams in Homs first noticed an increase in the number of displaced people some weeks ago, when clashes began near Al-Sukhneh, about 70 kilometres north-east of Palmyra. Last week, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, prepared two public buildings as shelters in Palmyra to host almost 1,000 people who had fled Al-Sukhneh. These people have since left Palmyra and moved to Al-Qarayateen.

The refugee agency is working with sister UN agencies and NGO partners to deliver a response plan to the new displacement, expected to increase in the coming days.

By Firas Al-Khateeb in Damascus, Syria