Syria relief efforts ramped up even as peace talks falter

A Syrian fighter greeting medical evacuees and their families as a convoy of buses and ambulances from the Syrian villages of Zabadani and Madaya arrived on the outskirts of Idlib yesterday during an operation to evacuate hundreds of wounded people f
A Syrian fighter greeting medical evacuees and their families as a convoy of buses and ambulances from the Syrian villages of Zabadani and Madaya arrived on the outskirts of Idlib yesterday during an operation to evacuate hundreds of wounded people from besieged Syrian towns.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Food, medicine and equipment delivered to rebel-held town; UN evacuates 500 people

BEIRUT • Aid groups launched their largest delivery of assistance yet in war-torn Syria yesterday after the United Nations evacuated hundreds of besieged residents, intensifying relief efforts even as peace talks falter.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that the 65-truck convoy of food and medicines to the rebel-held town of Rastan was the first aid it had been able to deliver to the area's 120,000 residents since 2012.

ICRC spokesman Pawel Krzysiek said the convoy was also carrying equipment to improve the water supply in Rastan in the central province of Homs.

"This is the largest joint humanitarian convoy we have done in Syria so far," he told Agence France-Presse.

Many living in and around Rastan had fled fighting in neighbouring Hama province.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said that the 65-truck convoy of food and medicines to the rebel-held town of Rastan was the first aid it had been able to deliver to the area's 120,000 residents since 2012.

Earlier, the UN evacuated 500 people "in urgent need of life-saving medical attention" and their families from four other towns. Two of the towns were held by the government and two by rebels.

The UN carried out the medical evacuations in a carefully synchronised joint operation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent that lasted through Wednesday night.

At dawn yesterday, the evacuees were taken to a staging area in a rebel-held part of central Syria before being transported for treatment, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

Exactly 250 evacuees were taken out of the besieged rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus. The same number were evacuated from Fuaa and Kafraya, pro-government towns under siege by Islamist rebels.

A partial truce, brokered by Washington and Moscow, had brought about a lull in fighting between the government and rebels since Feb 27.

But violence has surged in recent weeks, particularly in and around Idlib and the battleground northern city of Aleppo.

On Tuesday, suspected government air strikes on two Idlib province towns were believed to have killed at least 40 civilians. Both towns are not covered by the truce because they are controlled by Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

But the strikes drew a furious reaction from the main Western-backed opposition, the High Negotiations Committee. It said they vindicated its decision to suspend its participation in the UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva.

The US said yesterday it was concerned about reports that Russia is moving more military equipment into Syria to bolster President Bashar al-Assad, with the truce in tatters and peace talks in meltdown.

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said he will assess today whether the Geneva talks can still continue.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2016, with the headline 'Syria relief efforts ramped up even as peace talks falter'. Print Edition | Subscribe