Food and first aid trucks arrive in Syrian town

Residents in Madaya walking alongside Syrian soldiers on Monday, the day that the first trucks from a convoy carrying food and medical aid entered the town. Madaya is besieged by pro-government forces, including the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah.
Residents in Madaya walking alongside Syrian soldiers on Monday, the day that the first trucks from a convoy carrying food and medical aid entered the town. Madaya is besieged by pro-government forces, including the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Government's permission being sought to evacuate 400 people in critical condition

BEIRUT • A World Health Organisation representative said yesterday that it has asked the Syrian government for permission to send mobile clinics and medical teams to the besieged town of Madaya to assess the extent of malnutrition and evacuate the worst cases.

The first trucks from a convoy carrying food and medical aid entered the besieged Syrian town of Madaya on Monday, a Red Cross official on the scene said, amid a growing international outcry over the increasing number of deaths from malnutrition there.

Madaya, along with neighbouring Zabadani, is besieged by pro-government forces, including the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah.

After a last-minute flurry of negotiations as the convoys idled at the entrances to the towns, trucks and SUVs began rolling in, Mr Pawel Krzysiek, a spokesman for the Syria branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said by text message from Madaya. Unloading was expected to last through the night, he said on Twitter.

"Crowds of hungry kids around," said Mr Sajjad Malik from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative for Syria, in a text message released by the agency.

"It is heartbreaking to see so many hungry people. It is cold and raining but there is excitement because we are here with food and blankets."

At the United Nations on Monday night, the organisation's top humanitarian official told the Security Council that 400 people needed to be evacuated immediately and that permission from the Syrian government had been sought, envoys said.

"They need medical evacuation on an urgent basis tonight," the ambassador from New Zealand, Mr Gerard van Bohemen, told reporters after a closed-door session of the council. He said he had no details about their condition.

By late Monday, four trucks had entered Madaya, according to the United Nations, with dozens more expected to enter over the coming days. The organisation said trucks also began to enter Fouaa and Kfarya but without specifying how many arrived. Hezbollah's media office said that three trucks had entered Fouaa by evening.

"One convoy will not solve the problem," said Mr Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.

For months, aid to Madaya and Zabadani has been the subject of delicate negotiations aimed at an agreement known as the "four-towns pact". Under the agreement, some aid was delivered in October, and last month, several hundred wounded fighters and their families were evacuated.

Since then, plans for more aid and evacuations have stalled, and malnutrition has worsened in Madaya, where, according to interviews with a dozen residents as well as with humanitarian workers assisting a clinic there, people have been collapsing of hunger as they try to subsist on things like grass soup.

The siege in Madaya, which is surrounded by land mines, snipers and barbed wire, is only the latest crisis that Syrians have endured - despite Security Council resolutions insisting on the unconditional delivery of aid across front lines.

NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2016, with the headline 'Food and first aid trucks arrive in Syrian town'. Print Edition | Subscribe