UNICEF delivers rare aid to displaced Damascus camp residents

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The U.N. children's fund said on Tuesday it had delivered aid to families driven out of an embattled Palestinian refugee camp outside Syria's capital into areas to which UNICEF has had no access for two years. Islamic State militants seized large parts of the devastated Yarmouk camp on the southern outskirts of Damascus last month and have been battling other armed groups inside, putting 18,000 Palestinian and Syrian residents at increased risk. UNICEF said it had delivered baby diaper kits, aid packages for newborns, medicine and children's clothes this week to areas close to the camp where it estimated around 2,500 families had fled, raising the local population to more than 50,000 people. UNICEF had been unable to reach these areas previously because it lacked permission from the Syrian government to cross over, UNICEF spokeswoman Juliette Touma said. "This is a breakthrough but we need so much more," she said. UNICEF says it has only been able to send seven convoys across conflict lines in Syria this year. Yarmouk was already a civil war battleground before the Islamic State attack, having been reduced to rubble from street fighting, air attacks and shelling. Food, water and medical aid have long been scarce in a camp where hundreds of people regularly queue for meager aid supplies and around 3,500 children live. The two sets of aid deliveries were made across conflict lines and supported the work of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which provides assistance to Palestinian refugees, UNICEF said. The deliveries had to cross five checkpoints to reach the families in Yalda, Babila and Beit Saham, around 10 km (6 miles) south of Damascus, UNICEF said. "The humanitarian needs in these areas are dire," it said. Water sources are contaminated and need treatment before distribution while only 20 percent of wells are functioning. Mains electricity is only available for an hour a day and there is only one doctor in the area, compared to 500 before the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, it said. Prices of basic goods are now four to five times higher. Aid workers say violence and a lack of cooperation from sides in the crisis has severely hampered aid access to needy people inside Syria, where the conflict has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions since 2011. (Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Mark Heinrich)