By Albert Aji
Aid convoys have delivered long-awaited food, medicine and other supplies to three besieged Syrian communities Monday, part of a UN-supported operation to help tens of thousands of civilians cut off for months by the fighting.
UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien said about 400 people in the hospital in the besieged mountain village of Madaya must be evacuated immediately to receive life-saving medical attention.
He told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council that they need treatment for medical complications, severe malnourishment and starvation.
This must be done as soon as possible "or they are in grave peril of losing their lives", O'Brien said, adding that efforts will be made to get ambulances to Madaya on Tuesday to evacuate the 400 people, of all ages, if safe passage can be assured.
The UN says 4.5 million Syrians are living in besieged or hard-to-reach areas and desperately need humanitarian aid, with civilians prevented from leaving and aid workers blocked from bringing in food, medicine, fuel and other supplies.
It will take several days to distribute the aid in Madaya, near Damascus, and the Shi'ite villages of Foua and Kfarya in northern Syria, and the supplies are probably enough to last for a month, aid agencies said.
"It's really heartbreaking to see the situation of the people," said Red Cross spokesman Pawel Krzysiek, who oversaw the distribution in Madaya. "A while ago, I was just approached by a little girl and her first question was, 'Did you bring food?'"
The operation marked a small, positive development in a bitter conflict now in its fifth year that has killed a quarter of a million people, displaced millions of others and left the country in ruins.
Rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad are in control of Madaya, a mountain town about 24km northwest of Damascus. Government troops and fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah have surrounded the town. Opposition activists and aid groups have reported several deaths from starvation in recent weeks.
Syria's UN ambassador Bashar Ja'afari denied anyone was starving in Madaya and blamed Arab television especially "for fabricating these allegations and lies".
Speaking at the UN headquarters, he blamed "armed terrorist groups" for stealing humanitarian aid and reselling it at prohibitive prices.
But O'Brien, the UN humanitarian chief, said all the evidence the UN has shows there has been very severe malnourishment, severe food shortages, and reports of people "who are either starving or indeed have starved and died".
An Associated Press crew saw the first three trucks cross into Madaya on Monday, although journalists were not allowed to accompany the aid workers. At the town's entrance, several civilians - including five children shivering against the cold - said they were waiting to be taken out.
"I want out. There is nothing in Madaya, no water, no electricity, no fuel and no food," said Safiya Ghosn, a teacher who stood at the entrance of the town hoping to be evacuated.
Simultaneously, trucks began entering Foua and Kfarya, which are both under siege by rebel groups hundreds of kilometres to the north.
Tales of hunger and hardship have emerged from those inside all three communities: Pro-government fighters recently evacuated from inside Foua and Kfarya have said some residents are eating grass to survive. Residents of Madaya similarly have reported living off soup made of leaves and salt water.
Some Assad supporters have said the photos were faked, and others alleged the rebels were withholding food from residents.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV channel showed a group of people, including women and children, waiting for the convoys at Madaya's main entrance. In interviews, they accused rebel fighters inside of hoarding humanitarian assistance that entered the town in October and selling the supplies to residents at exorbitant prices.