May 12, 2016 / 5:12 PM / in 2 years

Aid convoy denied entry to besieged Syrian town

BEIRUT (Reuters) - An aid convoy was refused entry to a besieged Syrian town on Thursday, the Red Cross and United Nations said, blocking what would have been the first supplies to its residents for more than three years.

A man rides a bicycle past a damaged building in Daraya, near Damascus February 2, 2014. REUTERS/Omar Abu Bakr

The organizations said their joint delivery was stopped at the last government checkpoint on the way into Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus. The town is held by rebels and besieged by government forces.

The United Nations said this month that Syria’s government was refusing U.N. demands to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of people.

“Despite having obtained prior clearance by all parties that it could proceed,” the convoy was not allowed through, a statement from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and U.N. said.

“Daraya has been the site of relentless fighting ... and we know the situation there is desperate”, said Yacoub El Hillo, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria.

“Civilians trapped here are in need of humanitarian aid. We were hoping that today’s delivery of life-saving assistance would have been a first step and lead to more aid being allowed in.”

The ICRC’s Syria head, Marianne Gasser, said it was “tragic that even the basics we were bringing today are being delayed”. The supplies included medical aid, nutrition items for children and hygiene kits.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said government forces shelled parts of Daraya on Thursday. There was no immediate comment from the government.

The town borders a military airport used by Russian planes which have been conducting air strikes since September to support President Bashar al-Assad in the five-year-old civil war.

U.N. experts estimate around 4,000 civilians are trapped there, senior U.N. official Jan Egeland told reporters in Geneva on Thursday, before news emerged of the blocked convoy.

The United Nations was hoping to send assessment teams into other besieged areas across Syria in coming days, but was struggling to reach people caught up in new crises still emerging in the conflict, he added.

Teams had also so far failed to reach the al Waer suburb of the city of Homs, which Egeland said seemed to meet the criteria for a siege: full military encirclement, no humanitarian access and no movement for the civilian population in or out of the area.

“Al Waer is one of these places where heartbreaking things happen, where we have a convoy fully loaded, standing for days as it did last week, with supplies that we know there is a desperate need for. And then in the end you are told you have to unload,” he said.

In total, U.N. aid convoys still did not have government permission to reach around half the 905,000 people they want to help, Egeland said.

In one small step forward, a U.N. de-mining assessment mission had visited the central city of Palmyra, recently re-taken from Islamic State, and de-mining might soon be allowed, Egeland told reporters.

The United Nations had also received a conditional green light to go into Arbin, Zamalka and Zabadin, but with supplies for fewer people than were in the towns, he added.

Reporting by John Davison; Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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