Evacuation talks underway for besieged Syria town

2016-01-12 19:38
A Syrian woman speaks to journalists after being evacuated from Madaya. (AFP)

A Syrian woman speaks to journalists after being evacuated from Madaya. (AFP)

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Beirut - Aid groups were in talks on Tuesday to evacuate 400 people, many starving, from a besieged Syrian town where the UN said suffering was the worst seen in the nearly five-year-old war.

More than two dozen people have reportedly starved to death in Madaya, crippled by a six-month government siege that has made even bread and water hard to find.

On Monday, the first trucks of aid in about four months entered the town, delivering desperately needed food and medicine.

But hundreds of residents remain in need of urgent care, and humanitarian organisations were working on their evacuation, according to International Committee of the Red Cross spokesperson Pawel Krzysiek.

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

He said the ICRC, the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were all "working on" the evacuation process.

UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien on Monday called for Syria's government to allow the 400 people to leave the town to receive medical care.

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

Permission for safe access must come from "all the parties who govern any of the routes that need to be deployed, either for the ambulances or for any kind of air rescue", he said.

'No comparison'

The level of suffering in Madaya has no precedent in Syria's war, the UN refugee agency's representative in Syria said.

"There is no comparison in what we saw in Madaya," Sajjad Malik told journalists in Geneva, when asked to compare the devastation in the town to other areas in Syria.

He had travelled to Madaya on Monday with the UN's aid convoy, and expressed shock at the devastation in the town.

"There are people in Madaya, but no life. What we saw in Madaya should not happen in this century," Malik said. "We want to make sure the siege is lifted and this is not a one-off."

Syria's envoy to the UN Bashar Jaafari dismissed reports of civilians dying of hunger as fabricated.

Madaya is part of a six-month UN-brokered truce reached in September that also includes the nearby rebel-held town of Zabadani, and Fuaa and Kafraya, two government-controlled towns in Syria's northwest.

The agreement foresaw an end to hostilities in the four towns in exchange for humanitarian aid and some evacuations.

A UN official said "one or two more aid deliveries" to the towns would be carried out in the coming days.

Similar localised ceasefires have been reached elsewhere in Syria, and typically require rebels to lay down their weapons in exchange for allowing in assistance to inhabitants living under siege.

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

Regime advances in northwest 

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

Therefore, it was necessary to evacuate "critically malnourished and sick patients" from the town.

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," the statement said.

Elsewhere, government troops backed by pro-regime forces on Tuesday advanced into the main rebel redoubt in the northwestern province of Latakia, the coastal heartland of Syria's regime.

The push into Salma, which has been held by rebel groups for more than three years, was reported by both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor and state news agency SANA.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the British-based monitor, said pro-government forces were locked in fierce fighting with rebels including Islamist hardliners Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.

More than 260 000 people have died in Syria's conflict, which has evolved from anti-government protests to a bloody war that diplomatic efforts have thus far failed to resolve.

A new round of talks between government and opposition figures is set to begin on January 25 in Geneva, as part of an ambitious US-backed peace plan.

According to Syrian daily al-Watan, which is close to the government, invitations to the talks would be officially sent on Saturday, with each delegation made up of 15 people.

The sides would not engage in face-to-face talks, the newspaper said on Monday, but German academic and Syria specialist Volker Perthes would act as an intermediary.

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