Suffering in besieged town of Madaya has no precedent in Syria war: UN

Lebanese protesting against the ongoing siege imposed on the Syrian town of Madaya, at the Masnaa crossing on the Lebanon-Syria border on Jan 8, 2016.
Lebanese protesting against the ongoing siege imposed on the Syrian town of Madaya, at the Masnaa crossing on the Lebanon-Syria border on Jan 8, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (AFP) - The suffering in the Syrian town of Madaya is the worst seen in the country's civil war, the United Nations said on Tuesday (Jan 12), a day after delivering aid to the area besieged for months.

"There is no comparison in what we saw in Madaya," the UN refugee agency's chief in Damascus Sajjad Malik, told journalists in Geneva, when asked to compare the devastation in the town to other areas in Syria.

He said there were "credible reports" of people starving to death during the months-long siege by pro-regime forces.

A convoy of 44 trucks from the UN, Syrian Red Crescent and International Red Cross (ICRC) delivered emergency food supplies to Madaya on Monday, in the first aid to reach the area since October.

"There was no life," said Mr Malik, who was in the convoy, describing a town of desperate people who in many cases were too weak to voice outrage over their suffering.

Food has been so scarce that people "repeatedly mentioned that a kilo of rice would cost US$300", Mr Malik said.

One family "sold a motorbike to get 5kg of rice," he added, detailing the extent of the devastation among the town's estimated 40,000 inhabitants.

"Whatever we had in the cars, we gave to them," Mr Malik said.

Humanitarian groups are negotiating with all sides for the evacuation of 400 people, many starving, from Madaya, the Red Cross said on Tuesday.

More than two dozen people have reportedly starved to death in Madaya, which received its first aid delivery of food and medicine on Monday after a six-month government siege.

The UN, the ICRC, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are now working to evacuate around 400 people in need of urgent care, said ICRC spokesman Pawel Krzysiek.

"It's a very complicated process that needs permission to realise this humanitarian operation. We are in negotiations with all parties," Mr Krzysiek told AFP.

Syria's UN envoy Bashar Jaafari dismissed reports of starvation in Madaya as fabrications and accused "terrorists" inside the town of stealing the supplies.

On Monday, UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien said Syria's regime should allow the 400 people to leave the town to receive "life-saving medical attention".

"They are in grave peril of losing their lives," Mr O'Brien told reporters after a UN Security Council meeting.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) welcomed the calls for evacuation but said a long-term solution was needed.

"The medics in Madaya are not equipped for technical hospitalisation of really critical cases," the medical group said in an emailed statement.

But "MSF wants to know what will happen next week, or next month, for critically ill patients. Will they have a medical evacuation option? A one-off humanitarian visit and then a return to siege-starvation will not be acceptable", it said.

More than 260,000 people have been killed since Syria's war erupted in March 2011.