Thousands of people in besieged areas of Syria might already have died of starvation, the UN’s human rights chief has warned, as the UN planned to start delivering food, medicine and other supplies to more than 150,000 people under siege and a fragile truce entered its third day.
“The deliberate starvation of people is unequivocally forbidden as a weapon of warfare. By extension, so are sieges, which deprive civilians of essential goods such as food,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in address to the UN Human Rights Council’s main annual session.
Aid workers say several dozen people have died of starvation in the town of Madaya alone, but Zeid warned the situation could be far worse. “Thousands of people may have starved to death,” he said.
On Sunday the umbrella body that brings together rebel factions described the partial ceasefire as positive but lodged a formal complaint with the UN and foreign governments about breaches.
“We have violations here and there, but in general it is a lot better than before and people are comfortable,” said Salem al-Meslet, a spokesman for the Saudi-backed high negotiations committee, AFP reported.
Meslet said the opposition would like to see the truce “last for ever” and that it was the “responsibility of the United States to stop any violations”.
An HNC letter to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, accused the Syrian regime and its allies of committing “24 violations with artillery shelling and five ground operations … in 26 areas held by the moderate opposition”.
It said the breaches had killed 29 people and wounded dozens. The HNC has said it did not receive any maps of areas included in the ceasefire or documents explaining the monitoring mechanism. Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, said those maps were still being “kept secret”.
The ceasefire does not apply to territory held by Islamic State and the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front. Isis last week cut the government’s sole supply route to territory it holds in and around Aleppo, Syria’s second city. After several days of clashes, the army succeeded in reopening it on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.
State TV said government forces were de-mining the road, which runs through the town of Khanaser. The government has been using the Khanaser road to reach Aleppo because rebels control the main highway to the city further west.
With the truce largely holding, the UN plans to deliver aid over the next five days. The assistance will include food, water and sanitation supplies, non-food items, nutrition, medicine and health supplies to people trapped in besieged areas.
Retuers reported that the first delivery would go to rebel-held Muadhamiya, south-west of Damascus, on Monday.
Pending approval from parties to the conflict, the UN said it was ready to deliver aid to an estimated 1.7 million people in hard-to-reach areas in the first three months of this year through UN inter-agency convoys. It called on all parties to ensure unconditional, unimpeded and sustained access to 4.6 million people in hard-to-reach or besieged locations across Syria as well an immediate lifting of all sieges of towns where about 500,000 people are trapped.
Zeid lamented that prior to the temporary cessation of hostilities, human rights in the country had been “violated shockingly” for nearly five years.
“Neighbourhoods, schools and packed marketplaces have been hit by tens of thousands of airstrikes, thousands of barrel bombs have been thrown out of helicopters onto streets and homes,” he said.
A successful truce could pave the way for more meaningful peace talks that collapsed in early February as a Russia-backed regime offensive in northern Syria caused tens of thousands to flee. The UN envoy Staffan de Mistura aims to restart the talks on 7 March if the ceasefire lasts and more aid is delivered.
Russia, which has swung the war in favour of Bashar al-Assad with a five-month bombing campaign, accused “moderate” rebels and jihadis of nine ceasefire violations. But “on the whole, the ceasefire regime in Syria is being implemented”, Lt Gen Sergei Kuralenko, head of Moscow’s coordination centre in Syria, was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.