UN demands access to Syria's besieged towns

Syrian soldiers monitoring residents who said they had received permission from the government to leave Madaya after an aid convoy entered the besieged town last Thursday.
Syrian soldiers monitoring residents who said they had received permission from the government to leave Madaya after an aid convoy entered the besieged town last Thursday.PHOTO: REUTERS

UNITED NATIONS • Condemning Syria's "barbaric" sieges, the United Nations demanded immediate access to besieged towns to deliver food, medicine and other life-saving aid to civilians facing starvation.

"There can be no reason... no explanation or excuse for preventing aid from reaching people," UN aid official Kang Kyung Wha told an emergency Security Council meeting on ending the blockades.

France and Britain requested the urgent talks on Friday after reports emerged of dozens of people dying from starvation in the town of Madaya, where aid deliveries finally arrived this week.

A total of 35 people have died there since early last month, according to medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, which warned that a dozen more patients "could die very soon if they are not evacuated".

Madaya's 40,000 residents have been living under siege by pro-government forces for months.

"The barbarity of this tactic cannot be overstated," Ms Kang told the council. "You cannot let more people die under your watch."

A mobile clinic with medics was dispatched to Madaya to treat people suffering from malnutrition, the World Health Organisation said.

A teenage boy, 16-year-old Ali, became the latest victim of hunger. His death late on Thursday was witnessed by representatives of the UN children's agency Unicef.

"They took us down to the makeshift hospital and we went to the basement" where two young men shared a bed, Unicef's top Syria representative Hanaa Singer said, adding that the two boys' bodies "were skeleton-like". A Unicef doctor approached one of the teenagers who looked particularly weak and noticed his pulse had stopped.

"She checked him out, there was no pulse, so she started resuscitating. One, two, three times, then she looked at me and said, 'He's gone.' And she closed his eyes," Ms Singer said by phone from Syria.

So far, nine people have been allowed to leave Madaya to receive treatment and 19 others are in need of urgent evacuation, said Ms Kang.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon warned that any forces using starvation as a tactic of war in Syria were guilty of a "war crime".

"All sides - including the Syrian government, which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians - are committing this and other atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law," he told reporters.

The Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied that starvation is taking place in Madaya. Besides Madaya, the nearby opposition-held town of Zabadani, as well as Fuaa and Kafraya, were also besieged.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2016, with the headline 'UN demands access to Syria's besieged towns'. Print Edition | Subscribe