Aid allowed to enter besieged rebel-held town near Damascus


A convoy carrying food and medicine entered a besieged rebel-held town near Damascus Wednesday in what the United Nations described as a test for the country’s warring sides ahead of a hoped-for ceasefire.

The Red Crescent said trucks laden with supplies entered Moadimayet al-Sham, the first delivery of aid since world powers agreed on an ambitious plan to cease hostilities by Friday and dramatically ramp up humanitarian access.

Prospects for the cease-fire — announced by top diplomats in Munich last week — have been fading as violence continues to shake Syria, including strikes on hospitals on Monday and repeated Turkish shelling of Kurdish militia.

The Red Crescent’s Muhannad al-Asadi told AFP that a convoy entered Moadimayet al-Sham on Wednesday.

“There are 35 trucks carrying 8,800 sacks of flour, 4,400 food parcels, high energy foods and medical equipment,” he said.

The U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Yacoub El Hillo, added that supplies were also dispatched to four other besieged towns.

“Today, aid for 30,000 people will enter Moadimayet al-Sham. Other aid will be enough for one month for 42,000 in Madaya, and close to 1,000 in Zabadani,” he said.

Madaya and Zabadani, in Damascus province, are both besieged by Syrian regime forces.

Hillo said supplies for 20,000 people were to be delivered to the Shiite towns of Fuaa and Kafraya, in northwestern Idlib province, which are surrounded by rebels.

Almost half a million people in Syria are in areas under siege, according to the U.N.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said aid deliveries would provide a “test” for Syria’s warring sides ahead of Friday’s planned truce.

“It is the duty of the government of Syria to want to reach every Syrian person wherever they are and allow the U.N. to bring humanitarian aid,” he said in Damascus on Tuesday.

His comments led a senior aide to President Bashar Assad to accuse the envoy of deviating from his mediation role.

“His mission now is to establish a list of terrorist groups, and a list of opposition groups who should dialogue with the Syrian government,” Buthaina Shaaban told AFP.

“Instead of that he was working on humanitarian aid, which is not really his mission because he is a facilitator. He should take care of what he is apt to do.”

A U.N. source said De Mistura was set to stay in the capital overnight Wednesday to monitor the deliveries.

Diplomats have been pressing the cease-fire deal as a step forward in efforts to end the nearly five-year conflict that has left more than 260,000 dead, devastated the country and forced millions from their homes.

A major international push to resolve the conflict, including Western and Arab nations that have largely backed Syria’s opposition and Assad’s key supporters Russia and Iran, was launched last year.

But peace talks between the regime and opposition in Geneva quickly collapsed earlier this month and a major regime offensive, backed by Russian airstrikes, has continued in northern Aleppo province.

Airstrikes on five medical facilities and two schools in northern Syria earlier this week killed at least 50 people, the U.N. said.

One of the strikes hit a hospital supported by charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), killing 25 people and prompting widespread condemnation.

MSF did not assign blame for the attack though a Britain-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said a suspected Russian strike had hit the hospital.

Moscow rejected any responsibility and Syria’s U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, on Tuesday said MSF was responsible because it was not coordinating with the government.

Further complicating peace efforts, Ankara has been shelling a Kurdish-led militia in northern Syria, which it says is allied with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged an insurgency on its soil for decades.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Wednesday that Turkey would never accept the creation of a Kurdish stronghold in northern Syria, saying there was “no question” of Turkey ending its shelling.

Turkey on Tuesday called for foreign ground forces to deploy in Syria, part of a longstanding push by the NATO member for a more robust response to the conflict.

On Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan told A Haber television Ankara wanted to create a 10-km (6-mile) “safe line” inside Syria that would include the flash-point town of Azaz near the border.

Turkey has long pressed for a safe zone inside Syria, backed up by a no-fly zone, and has warned Kurdish forces it will not allow them to seize Azaz, which is held by rebel forces.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday also reiterated her call for a no-fly zone to protect civilians, saying the humanitarian situation in Syria was “intolerable.

“If we were able to reach an agreement between anti- and pro-Assad forces on a kind of no-fly zone … then this would save many lives and aid the political process about Syria’s future,” she told the German parliament.