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U.N. convoy begins aid distribution in Syria’s besieged Ghouta area amid shelling

U.N. officials said Syrian authorities removed many of the medical supplies from a 46-truck aid convoy headed toward the besieged eastern Ghouta on March 5. (Video: Reuters)

ISTANBUL — A United Nations convoy carrying lifesaving assistance entered the besieged Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Monday, reaching civilians for the first time in weeks amid a punishing government assault that has created one of the worst humanitarian crises of the war.

Food parcels, nutritional supplements and some medical supplies were aboard the 46-truck convoy, which was organized by U.N. agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The Syrian government, however, stripped the convoy of much of its medical supplies, including surgical kits, insulin and dialysis equipment, U.N. officials said. On Monday, Syrian government forces continued to pound Eastern Ghouta with airstrikes and shelling, activists and aid workers said. Dozens of people were reported killed.

The White House also “condemned sharply the bombing in East Ghouta” on Monday.

In a readout of a Sunday phone call between President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May, the White House said that “the United States and United Kingdom will hold Russia accountable for compelling the Assad regime to halt attacks against civilian areas and for granting access to humanitarian relief in East Ghouta.”

As many as 400,000 people are trapped in the enclave, which is suffering from severe shortages of food and medical supplies.

“This assistance is a drop in an ocean of needs,” said Marwa Awad, spokeswoman for the World Food Program in Damascus.

Awad, who was accompanying the convoy Monday, said the WFP was carrying enough food assistance for 27,500 people and supplies to treat 300 children for acute malnutrition.

“We’re hoping everything goes as planned,” she said, “so that we can reach those people in desperate need of humanitarian and food assistance.”

The area’s already decrepit hospitals have been overwhelmed by an influx of casualties in recent weeks, including more than 2,500 wounded residents. Nearly 600 people had died in Eastern Ghouta since Feb. 18, the United Nations said Sunday.

A doctor in Eastern Ghouta with the Syrian American Medical Society, a nonprofit group supporting hospitals in the area, said that 77 people had been killed in the enclave Monday. Civil defense forces known as the White Helmets said 93 bodies had been dug from the rubble, but it was unclear whether they had all been killed on the same day. 

No aid or evacuation for Eastern Ghouta as Syrian bombardments continue

In a statement, the ICRC said that it was able to bring in surgical items such as dressing materials.

“The convoy is a positive first step and will lessen the immediate suffering of some civilians in the Eastern Ghouta region,” said the ICRC’s Middle East director, Robert Mardini. “But one convoy, however big, will never be enough, given the dire conditions and shortages people are facing. Repeated and continuous humanitarian access is essential, and more must be granted in the coming period.”

The last time the ICRC was able to deliver aid in Eastern Ghouta was Nov. 12, the organization said.

Still, it remained unclear late Monday whether the convoy would be able to offload the aid before the fighting resumed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government backs forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, last week ordered a daily “humanitarian pause” from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for aid distribution and medical evacuations. Russia has blamed the rebels for the lack of evacuations and accused them of violating the temporary cease-fire.

The United Nations has said that five hours is an insufficient amount of time to provide the level of food and aid needed in Eastern Ghouta.

Ali al-Zatari, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said earlier that it would probably take “many hours” to unload the aid Monday, the Reuters news agency reported. The convoy could need to stay until “well after nightfall,” he said.

Louisa Loveluck in Beirut contributed to this report.

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