Evacuation of critically ill Syrians trapped in a rebel-held suburb near the capital Damascus is underway, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Wednesday, following reports that conditions in the area have reached alarming levels.
Activists said the evacuation began late Tuesday, when five patients left eastern Ghouta.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, partnering with the local Syrian Arab Red Crescent, are handling the evacuations. Neither had any immediate comment on the number or condition of the evacuees. SARC spokeswoman Mona Kurdi said they arrived in hospitals in government-controlled Damascus.
The Army of Islam, a prominent rebel group in eastern Ghouta, said 29 critically ill residents will be evacuated as part of a deal that was conditional on it releasing an equivalent number of captives it held.
As part of the nearly seven-year conflict, the government recently tightened its siege on the suburb, home to nearly 400,000 people. The United Nations said the government had refused to allow hundreds of critically ill to reach hospitals only minutes away and blocked trucks filled with humanitarian relief.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said his government is working with Russia to try and evacuate some 500 people from eastern Ghouta, including about 170 women and children, who are in urgent need of humanitarian or medical assistance.
Turkey is a leading supporter of the Syrian opposition, while Russia is allied with President Bashar Assad.
Images of children with wrinkled faces and arms because of severe malnutrition, and reports of civilians dying because of lack of treatment hanged over recent U.N.-led talks for peace in Geneva.
According to the U.N., roughly one in eight children are malnourished in eastern Ghouta — a shocking jump from one in 50 in May.
In a recent report, the ICRC said the conditions have reached a critical point.
“No military or political gains could justify this amount of suffering,” ICRC Middle East Director Robert Mardini said earlier this month.
Rights groups have accused the government of committing war crimes by using sieges as a tactic to starve local population and force rebel groups to surrender. It has been successfully used by the government elsewhere in Syria.
Earlier this month, the U.N. said 12 people had died waiting for medical evacuation from eastern Ghouta. Their names were on a U.N-drawn list submitted to the government six months ago.
Eastern Ghouta is one of the early suburbs to fall to rebel control after protests against the Syrian government. It has been besieged by the government since 2013, but tunnels and smuggling have kept basic foods and medical supplies flowing.
The government tightened the noose earlier this year, amid its successive military victories against armed opponents elsewhere in Syria.
But a political agreement to end the conflict, now in its seventh year, remains elusive.
On Wednesday, Russia’s foreign minister said a Moscow-proposed peace congress scheduled for next month is crucial for reaching a settlement in Syria.
Sergey Lavrov said the Russian effort won’t hamper separate U.N.-led talks, also expected to resume next month.
Lavrov’s statement on Wednesday comes a day after several dozen Syrian opposition groups issued a series of statements saying the talks in Russia’s Sochi next month are an attempt to “circumvent” the U.N.-led peace process.
SOURCE: The Associated Press