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Starvation reported at refugee camp in Syria

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Disturbing images of emaciated children and elderly people who appear to have died of hunger are emerging from a Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Damascus, where thousands are at risk of starvation after months of living under siege, U.N. officials and camp residents said Tuesday.

The growing concern for the welfare of residents of the Yarmouk camp comes ahead of an international conference in Kuwait today aimed at raising a record $6.5 billion for U.N. efforts to aid Syrians inside and outside their war-ravaged country.

But although the United Nations is feeding more than 3.8 million people in Syria, those most in need are not being reached because of the complicated dynamics of the battlefield. Fighters loyal to the government of President Bashar Assad surround numerous rebel-held neighborhoods, notably in the suburbs of Damascus, and refuse to allow access to food or medical aid as part of what U.S. and other Western leaders have repeatedly described as a policy of deliberate obstruction.

U.N. officials say they are especially alarmed at the reports of a growing number of deaths emanating from Yarmouk, just a few miles from the heart of Damascus, the capital.

"There is profound civilian suffering in Yarmouk, with widespread incidence of malnutrition and the absence of medical care," said Chris Gunness of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which is charged with helping displaced Palestinians across the region.

Most camp residents have long been eating little other than stale vegetables, powdered tomato paste and animal feed, he said.

Camp residents and activists on Tuesday reported the deaths of two more people from hunger, bringing to 48 the number who have died since November from illnesses related to the siege, according to Farouq al-Rifai, an activist in Yarmouk who uses a pseudonym to protect family members living in government-held areas.

At least five of those deaths were caused by malnutrition, he said, while others were attributable to a range of causes related to the lack of food and medicine, including anemia and diabetes. Some are dying of illnesses related to the poor quality of food, such as a family of five that killed and ate a cat and then succumbed to food poisoning, Rifai said. Some food is available, but at prices that few can afford; most people are subsisting on meager quantities of lentils, onions and, sometimes, boiled grass.

All of the victims have been children and the elderly, but "the hunger is inescapable for everyone," Rifai said.

Gunness said the United Nations could not confirm deaths from starvation, but it has noted the reports with alarm.

"Yarmouk remains closed to humanitarian access and remains a place where extreme human suffering in primitively harsh conditions is the norm," he said.

The deprivation brings more suffering for Palestinians who fled their homes after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and have since lived, with their descendants, as refugees in camps across the region, making them vulnerable to its many crises.

More than 160,000 Palestinians lived in Yarmouk on the eve of the uprising in Syria, which began in 2011, but most have since fled the fighting, reducing the population to about 18,000, according to the United Nations. The number may be higher, because thousands of displaced Syrians also have taken refuge at the camp.

Yarmouk residents accuse forces loyal to Assad of blocking access to relief convoys. The government blames "terrorists" inside the camp, including members of the radical the Nusra Front, which it claims has sought sanctuary there.

Gunness said an aid convoy on Monday was forced to turn back after a firefight erupted as the vehicles approached a loyalist checkpoint on the southern entrance to the camp. The government had denied access to a safer route through a northern checkpoint closer to the capital, he said.

Starvation reported at refugee camp in Syria 01/14/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 12:47am]

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