UNITED NATIONS - With fighting near Yarmouk intensifying, the United Nations agency concerned with the well-being of Palestinian refugees Sunday made a strong appeal to all armed actors to cease hostilities that place civilians in acute danger and to withdraw immediately from civilian populated areas.

“Never has the hour been more desperate in the Palestine refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus,” press release circulated by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). “We demand that all parties exercise maximum restraint and abide by their obligations under international law to protect civilians.”

UNRWA called on concerned States to urgently exercise their authority and influence in order to end the fighting in Yarmouk for the sake of civilian lives and to alleviate human suffering. Meanwhile, humanitarian access had to be increased and secure conditions established under which the agency would be able to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance and civilians could be evacuated.

The agency said that the international community, including UN bodies, should be seized of the “critical situation” without delay and should ensure that all civilians are protected in accordance with the UN charter and international law.

Failure to do so could lead to the gravest and most appalling of consequences for the more than 18,000 civilians who have been trapped in Yarmouk for over two years. Since 1 April, it has been the scene of intense fighting and it is virtually impossible for civilians to leave, as any attempt to move in the open brings high risk.

“The lives of civilians in Yarmouk have never been more profoundly threatened,” said UNRWA’s press release. “Men, women and children – Syrians and Palestinians alike – are cowering in their battered homes in profound fear, desperate for security, food and water, deeply concerned by the grave perils that may yet come, as hostilities continue.”

Among the besieged residents of Yarmouk are 3,500 children, who have been reliant on UNRWA’s irregular distributions of food and other assistance for over a year.

“The level of our aid has been well below the minimum required,” said UNRWA’s statement, which stressed the agency’s readiness to resume assistance to the civilian population as soon as hostilities cease. “Potable water is now unavailable inside Yarmouk and the meager health facilities that existed have been overrun by conflict. The situation is extremely dire and threatens to deteriorate even further.”

AFP adds: Around 2,000 people have been evacuated from the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus after the Islamic State group seized large parts of it, a Palestinian official told AFP Sunday.

“Around 400 families, approximately 2,000 people, were able to leave the camp on Friday and Saturday via two secure roads to the Zahira district, which is under army control,” said Anwar Abdul Hadi, a Palestine Liberation Organisation official.

Abdul Hadi said Syrian troops had helped in the evacuation, which came as Palestinian forces battled to hold back IS fighters who have captured large swathes of the camp since Wednesday.

He said most of those evacuated from the camp were being hosted in government shelters, with at least 25 wounded taken to two hospitals in Damascus.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, confirmed that “hundreds” of people had been evacuated from the camp.

The group said at least 26 people, including civilians as well as fighters from IS and Palestinian factions, had been killed in the camp since Wednesday.

Since the militant advance, regime forces have pounded the camp with shells and barrel bombs, according to the Observatory. Palestinian officials and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA have urged humanitarian access to the camp.

Yarmuk, in south Damascus, was once home to 160,000 people, Syrians as well as Palestinians. But its population has dwindled to just 18,000 since the uprising erupted in March 2011.

The camp is encircled by government forces and was under a tight siege for more than a year. An agreement last year between rebels and the government, backed by Palestinian factions, led to an easing of the siege, but humanitarian access has remained limited.

IS fighters attacked the camp on Wednesday, and were initially largely repelled, but were subsequently able to capture large parts of it.

Palestinian officials have accused Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front of helping IS to enter the camp.

Among the deaths in the fighting were at least two Palestinian militants reportedly beheaded by IS, according to the Observatory and militant social media accounts.

Syrian forces remain outside the camp, and sources said troops had set up additional checkpoints around Yarmuk after the fighting began.