DAMASCUS • Dozens of aid trucks are heading to the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Madaya, where 28 people are reported to have starved to death.
The aid convoys were set to arrive in the town after an outpouring of international concern and condemnation over the dire conditions in Madaya, where some 42,000 are living under a government siege.
Forty-four aid trucks operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Syrian Red Crescent, the United Nations and World Food Programme left from Damascus for Madaya yesterday afternoon.
The delivery will happen simultaneously with the entry of 21 trucks carrying similar supplies to two government-held Shi'ite villages of Fuaa and Kafraya in north-western Idlib province, which are under rebel siege.
They are over 300km from Damascus, while Madaya is about 40km from the capital.
The trucks are carrying food, water, infant formula, blankets, medication for acute and chronic illnesses, as well as surgical supplies.
The three areas, along with rebel-held Zabadani, next to Madaya, were part of a six-month deal reached last September for an end to hostilities in those areas in exchange for humanitarian assistance.
A first aid delivery went ahead, and last month some 450 fighters and civilians from Zabadani, Fuaa and Kafraya were evacuated.
Government forces were able to airdrop some supplies into Fuaa and Kafraya, which are home to around 20,000 people, but rebel forces could not do the same for Madaya.
As a result, aid has not entered Madaya since last October, and residents and rights groups have raised the alarm over deteriorating conditions in the town.
The Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity said 23 people had died of starvation since Dec 1 at one of the facilities it supports in Madaya. On Sunday, it reported five additional deaths.
"MSF-supported medics in the besieged town have 10 critical starvation patients needing urgent hospitalisation," the group said.
It said that "200 more malnourished patients could become critical and in need of hospitalisation within a week if aid doesn't arrive".
Residents have described desperate scenes, saying they have been reduced to eating weeds and paying exorbitant prices for the little food smuggled through the siege.
Thirteen people who tried to escape in search of food were shot by snipers or killed when they stepped on landmines, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The blockade of Madaya has become a focal issue for Syrian opposition leaders, who told a UN envoy last week that they would not take part in talks with the government, slated for later this month, until it and other sieges are lifted.
The Madaya blockade began six months ago when the Syrian army and its Lebanese ally Hizbollah started a campaign to re-establish President Bashar al-Assad's control over areas along the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Hizbollah has, in response to accusations that it was starving people in Madaya, denied there had been any deaths in the town, and accused rebel leaders of preventing people from leaving.
The group's Al Manar television showed footage yesterday of hundreds of Madaya residents gathered outdoors waiting to receive aid.
Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory said at least 12 children were killed when a Russian air strike hit their school in the west of Aleppo province. The strike injured another 20 students and teachers, it said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS