Thursday, June 21, 2018

Violence across Syria as peace conference begins

DAMASCUS, Syria — Government forces and rebels clashed across Syria and aid groups called on the international community to ensure that supplies reach millions of desperate civilians, as a peace conference to end the country's civil war started Wednesday in Switzerland.

The statement by seven international aid and rights groups said the humanitarian crisis unleashed by the three-year conflict "defies the basic norms of a civilized world." Activists say the conflict has killed more than 130,000 and forced millions more from their homes. An estimated 9 million people now need United Nations aid to survive.

As the conflict grinds on, government forces and to a lesser degree, rebels, have besieged areas under the control of their opponents to prevent food, medicine and other necessities from entering.

One of the worst-hit areas is the Yarmouk area on the southern fringe of Damascus, where activists say about 50 people have died of starvation and hunger-related illnesses since the government imposed a blockade on the sprawling district a year ago.

In days of efforts, the U.N. said it had only managed to deliver a few hundred food parcels to residents in Yarmouk. That included a mere 26 parcels providing food for just over 300 people on Tuesday, said U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness.

Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, which entered the camp with the aid convoy, aired footage of one man weeping as his wife held up their crying baby.

"My daughter is urinating blood," the man said. "Please let us out of this camp."

Rami al-Sayed, a videographer and resident in the Yarmouk camp, said only a tiny amount of aid entered because government officials ordered aid workers to distribute the parcels in an area under sniper fire.

He called it a publicity stunt. "The regime wants photos of people receiving food while they are in (Switzerland). They want to show they aren't blockading or starving people," he said.

Meanwhile, clashes erupted between government forces and opposition fighters in the suburbs of Damascus, in the province of Daraa in the south, in Idlib and Aleppo in the north and the central province of Homs, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said.

In an apparent effort by the government to reinforce the impression that its forces are gaining ground around the northern city of Aleppo, state TV said the first civilian flight into city's airport in more than a year brought in a group of journalists. The international airport had been closed since December 2012 due to fighting and repeated attacks by rebels.

Government troops have been on the offensive for days near the Aleppo International Airport and a nearby military air base.

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