By Heba Kanso
BEIRUT, April 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of Palestinian refugees near the Syrian capital are trapped in "rapidly deteriorating" conditions without running water or doctors and little food, the United Nations said on Wednesday, as the Syrian army prepared to capture the area.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid to Palestinian refugees, reported overnight shelling on Tuesday as Syrian forces prepared for an assault on the last area outside their control near Damascus.
"The humanitarian situation in Yarmouk and surrounding areas has long been very harsh and is rapidly deteriorating," UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said, referring to Syria's biggest camp for Palestinian refugees since the mid-20th century.
"Supplies of food and medicine are running low. There is no running water and very little electricity. Healthcare options are limited and there are no doctors remaining in the area."
Recovering Yarmouk camp, which has been under the control of Islamic militants for several years, and neighbouring areas south of the city would give President Bashar al-Assad complete control over Damascus, further consolidating his grip on power.
Many residents have fled the area, which has been besieged by pro-government forces since the early days of the seven-year-old civil war that has killed more than 500,000 people and driven more than half of Syrians from their homes.
UNRWA said refugees in Yarmouk camp make up about half of some 12,000 civilians trapped in the area.
Checkpoints into the camp have been closed for most of the last month, cutting off its lifeline, Gunness said.
"Things were appalling even before this current upsurge of violence," he said, calling for more access to distribute aid and to evacuate people who wish to leave.
The camp was home to some 160,000 Palestinians before the Syrian conflict began in 2011, refugees from the 1948 war of Israel's founding, and their descendents.
Assad is now in his strongest position since the early months of the war, with his Russian-backed forces on the offensive with the goal of recapturing the entire country.
The United States, Britain and France launched strikes against Assad's government on Saturday in retaliation for what they say was a poison gas attack on April 7 that killed scores of people in Douma, a former rebel-held enclave near Damascus.
Damascus and Moscow have both denied using poison gas.
(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Katy Migiro (Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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