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Militant groups accused of exploiting refugees in Syrian refugee camps

MILITANT anti-government groups have been accused of exploiting displaced people in Syria by selling them aid supplies and recruiting members from a refugee camp in a region controlled by US forces.

Former residents of the Rukban camp have started to arrive in the historic city of Palmyra, which is being rebuilt after government forces retook control from Isis jihadists in 2017.

New arrivals have reported that they had been made to pay for tents, food and medicine — and that some had been coerced into joining the ranks of the Revolutionary Commando Army, an anti-government militia that claims to have been funded, armed and trained by the CIA and Saudi Arabia.

Refugee Ahmad Mohammed said: “This tent has cost us 50,000 Syrian pounds (£84). It was brought from Lebanon as humanitarian aid and sold to us.

“But that was only half the trouble. When we bought the tent, we discovered that there is nothing in the camp: no food, no water, no medicines.” 

He added that the militants controlled the camp and were charging refugees for everything. “Medical aid depended on the militants, too: if you co-operate, you have access to doctors. If you don’t, there will be no aid,” Mr Mohammed said.

“Our relatives’ child got sick, a four-year-old girl. She had an infection but nobody helped her. They ran out of money and the child died right in my hands.”

According to Mr Mohammed, the militants would sell aid items that had been donated by international relief organisations.

"Sometimes, we received aid from the Red Crescent, but we only saw a small portion of it, most often sold to us, not given for free. The militants take the free aid and resell it to the refugees — that’s their business. To get money, we had to work at the camp. They set up a brick factory and we had to work like dogs there,” he said.

The money raised was used to finance the anti-government group that operated a strict regime inside the camp, using it to recruit members. Mr Mohammed explained: “They are all armed, they walk the camp with rifles, they have semi-military equipment and they own the place.

“They distributed leaflets, calling [for us] to take weapons and go fight against the [Bashir al-Assad] regime, even called for this during the prayers.

“Any man could turn to the administration to enlist. It was a simple way not to die of hunger.”

His family finally managed to leave the camp by paying a ransom and headed to Palmyra, he said.

Russia has long accused the US of using the camp, which houses about 19,000 people, to justify its illegal military presence in Syria.

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