Relief workers witness starvation in Syrian towns

Tuesday 12 January 2016 06.33
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At least 28 people have died of starvation since December in Madaya
At least 28 people have died of starvation since December in Madaya
Aid convoys carrying food, medicine and blankets, leave the Syrian capital Damascus heading to Madaya
Aid convoys carrying food, medicine and blankets, leave the Syrian capital Damascus heading to Madaya
Smoke rises as Syrian opponents clash with the Assad regime forces at a region between Moadamiyeh and Darayya districts in Damascus
Smoke rises as Syrian opponents clash with the Assad regime forces at a region between Moadamiyeh and Darayya districts in Damascus

UN and relief agency workers saw starving people in two besieged Syrian areas where aid deliveries were made on Monday, according to a senior UN official.

An aid convoy entered the town of Madaya, besieged by government forces, where thousands had been trapped for months without supplies and people had been reported to have died of starvation.

Yacoub El Hillo, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria who was in Madaya overseeing the operation, said he had also received reports, which could not be confirmed,  that at least 40 people had died of starvation.

"We have seen with our own eyes severely malnourished children. I am sure there also malnourished older people and it is true they are malnourished, and so there is starvation, and I am sure the same is true on the other side in al Foua and Kefyra," he told Reuters by phone from Madaya.

Foua and Kafyra are two mostly Shia villages 300km away, besieged by rebels, that also received deliveries from the convoy.

Activists say some inhabitants of Madaya have been reduced to eating leaves, while images said to be of emaciated residents have appeared widely on social media.

However, Syria's envoy to the UN has dismissed the reports of starvation as fabrication.

Ambassador Bashar Jafari told reports at UN headquarters in New York that "there was no starvation in Madaya", adding that the "Syrian government is not and will not exert any policy of starvation on its own people".

Aid agencies were hoping for easier access to the area following the ceasefire deal concluded under UN supervision.

The blockade of Madaya has become a focal issue for Syrian opposition leaders, who told a UN envoy last week they would not take part in talks with the government, slated for later this month, until it and other sieges are lifted.

Women cried out with relief as the first four trucks,carrying the banner of the Syria Red Crescent crossed into Madaya after sunset, with civilians waiting on the outskirts of the town as the temperature dropped and it began to get dark.

The full aid operation was expected to last several days, the ICRC said.

The blockade of Madaya has become a focal issue for Syrian opposition leaders, who told a UN envoy last week they would not take part in talks with the government, slated for later this month, until it and other sieges are lifted.

Women cried out with relief as the first four trucks,carrying the banner of the Syria Red Crescent crossed into Madaya after sunset, with civilians waiting on the outskirts of the town as the temperature dropped and it began to get dark.

The full aid operation was expected to last several days, the ICRC said.

Images said to be from Madaya and showing skeletal men with protruding ribcages were published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the war, while an emaciated baby in a nappy with bulging eyes was shown in other posts.

Dr Mohammed Yousef, who heads a local medical team, said 67 people had died either of starvation or lack of medical aid in the last two months, mostly women, children and the elderly.

Residents on the outskirts of the town said they wanted to leave. There was widespread hunger and prices of basic foods such as rice had soared, with some people living off water and salt, they said.

One opposition activist has said people were eating leaves and plants.

The blockade of Madaya has become a focal issue for Syrian opposition leaders, who told a UN envoy last week they would not take part in the proposed talks with the government until it and other sieges were lifted.

The siege began six months ago when the Syrian army and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, started a campaign to reestablish Mr Assad's control over areas along the Syrian-Lebanese border.

Hezbollah responded to accusations it was starving people in Madaya by denying there had been any deaths in the town, and accusing rebel leaders of preventing people from leaving.

12 children killed in school strike 

Bombs dropped by suspected Russian warplanes killed at least 12 Syrian schoolchildren when they hit a classroom in a rebel-held town in Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

The air strike hit the town of Injara some 15km west of Aleppo city.

A teacher also died and there were reports of others wounded, some critically, the monitor said.

Social media footage released by opposition activists showed a classroom with destroyed benches and textbooks lying on the floor stained with blood.

The footage could not be independently verified.

There was no immediate comment from the Russian defence ministry.

In Geneva, a spokesman for the UN children's fund UNICEF said it was looking into the reports of the raid.

The Kremlin launched air strikes over Syria in September saying it wanted to help President Bashar al-Assad, its main Middle East ally, defeat the self-styled Islamic State and other militant groups.