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Aid trucks make way into starvation-hit Syria towns

Humanitarian assistance allowed into Madaya outside Damascus, where over two dozen people are reported to have starved to death

A convoy of aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) waits on the outskirts of the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Madaya, on January 11, 2016. (AFP/Louai Beshara)
A convoy of aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) waits on the outskirts of the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Madaya, on January 11, 2016. (AFP/Louai Beshara)

MADAYA, Syria — The first trucks carrying desperately needed aid entered the besieged Syrian town of Madaya on Monday, where more than two dozen people are reported to have starved to death.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said two trucks loaded with food and blankets entered the rebel-held town late afternoon, at around the same time a military source said three others entered each of the government-controlled towns of Fuaa and Kafraya.

Relieved residents of Madaya — which has been encircled by President Bashar Assad’s forces for six months — said they had resorted to extreme measures to survive.

“For 15 days we have been eating only soup,” said Hiba Abdel Rahman, 17. “I saw a young man killing cats and presenting the meat to members of his family as rabbit.”

“Some people went through garbage bins, others ate grass. We sought food from the fighters but they refused to give it to us.”

Ali Issa, a father of eight, said they had run out of everything, even money to buy what little food could be smuggled through at exorbitant prices.

The International Committee of the Red Cross hailed the first deliveries.

“The operation has started. It is likely to last a few days. This is a very positive development,” said Marianne Gasser, head of the ICRC’s Syria delegation.

“But it must not be just a one-off distribution. To relieve the suffering of these tens of thousands of people, there has to be regular access to these areas,” she said in a statement.

The UN’s World Food Program is providing the food, namely milk for children, while the ICRC is supplying medicine enough to last three months, medical equipment and blankets.

The operation to organize the supplies with help from the Red Crescent got underway after Assad’s regime gave permission for the deliveries on Thursday.

“It’s really heartbreaking to see the situation of the people,” said Red Cross spokesman Pawel Krzysiek, who oversaw the distribution in Madaya. “A while ago, I was just approached by a little girl and her first question was, ‘Did you bring food?'”

Added Sajjad Malik, a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who took part in the operation: “It’s cold and raining, but there is excitement because we are here with some food and blankets.”

Syrians wait for the arrival of an aid convoy on January 11, 2016 in the besieged town of Madaya as part of a landmark six-month deal reached in September for an end to hostilities in those areas in exchange for humanitarian assistance. (AFP / STRINGER)
Syrians wait for the arrival of an aid convoy on January 11, 2016 in the besieged town of Madaya. (AFP/STRINGER)

It comes after an outpouring of international concern and condemnation over the dire conditions in Madaya, home to some 42,000 people.

An AFP correspondent who reached Madaya with the aid convoy said the town’s streets were deserted, with only a service station open.

A pair of elderly women were seen sitting on suitcases as Red Crescent official said a dozen of residents would be evacuated from the town.

Since December 1, some 28 people had died of starvation in Madaya, according to Doctors Without Borders, a Paris-based charity known by its French acronym MSF.

Landmark ceasefire deal

Fifty trucks bearing the Red Crescent symbol were on their way to Madaya and 21 heading to Fuaa and Kafraya, the ICRC said.

The trucks were carrying food, water, infant formula, blankets and medication for acute and chronic illnesses, as well as surgical supplies.

The three towns, along with rebel-held Zabadani near Madaya, were part of a landmark six-month deal reached in September for an end to hostilities in those areas in exchange for humanitarian assistance.

A first aid delivery went ahead in October and in December some 450 fighters and civilians were evacuated from Zabadani, Fuaa and Kafraya.

But aid had not reached Madaya in nearly three months, and residents and rights groups have raised the alarm about deteriorating conditions.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV channel showed a group of people, including women and children, waiting for the convoys at Madaya’s main entrance. In interviews, they accused rebel fighters inside of hoarding humanitarian assistance that entered the town in October and selling the supplies to residents at exorbitant prices.

Ghosn, who spoke to journalists accompanied by government officials, also blamed rebels in Madaya, saying: “Their depots are full while we go hungry. We have to humiliate ourselves to go to them and beg for food.”

File: An image of a starving child in Madaya, Syria, a city that has been under siege by pro-government forces for six months. (screen capture: YouTube)
File: An image of a starving child in Madaya, Syria, a city that has been under siege by pro-government forces for six months. (screen capture: YouTube)

Government forces have been able to airdrop some supplies into Fuaa and Kafraya, which are home to around 20,000 people, but rebel forces are not able to do the same for Madaya.

Over the weekend, MSF said 23 people had died of starvation since December 1 at one of the facilities it supports in Madaya.

On Sunday it reported five additional deaths, including that of a nine-year-old boy.

“MSF-supported medics in the besieged town have 10 critical starvation patients needing urgent hospitalization,” said MSF.

It said that “200 more malnourished patients could become critical and in need of hospitalization within a week if aid doesn’t arrive”.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said another 13 people died when they stepped on landmines or were shot by snipers as they tried to escape in search of food.

‘Inhuman tactic’

Last week, the UN said only 10 percent of its requested aid deliveries to hard-to-reach and besieged areas of Syria last year were approved and carried out.

More than 260,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government demonstrations.

The United States and Britain on Monday called for an end to all sieges in Syria, while French President Francois Hollande called for the immediate establishment of “humanitarian measures.”

“Starving civilians is an inhuman tactic used by the Assad regime and their allies,” said Matthew Rycroft, the British ambassador to the United Nations.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said “full access” to besieged towns is needed, urging all parties to cooperate.

Elsewhere in Syria, at least 14 children and five adults, one of them a teacher, were killed when a Russian air strike hit their school in the west of Aleppo province, the Observatory reported.

Russia, a staunch ally of Assad, began a campaign of air strikes in support of the regime in late September.

It says it is targeting the Islamic State group and other “terrorists” and has dismissed reports that its raids have killed hundreds of civilians as “absurd.”

AP contributed to this report.

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