January 11, 2016

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Aid convoys arrived to the outskirts of a besieged rebel-held town near the Lebanese border on Monday with enough supplies to last for a month, as another convoy headed to two besieged villages in northern Syria — part of a large-scale U.N.-supported aid operation in the war-ravaged country, Syria’s official news agency and aid groups said.

A group of residents gathered at the main entrance to Madaya, hoping to receive desperately needed food and medicine. The town, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) northwest of Damascus, has been blockaded for months by government troops and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Opposition activists and aid groups have reported several deaths from starvation in recent weeks.

The U.N.-supported aid operation was agreed on last week and appeared to be proceeding Monday. Syria’s Red Crescent President Abdul Rahman Attar said the convoy reached the outskirts of Madaya shortly after midday, according to a statement posted on the organization’s Twitter account.

A similar convoy reached the outskirts of the Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya in Idlib province, both under siege by rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Assad Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria alongside Assad’s forces, reported on its Al-Manar television channel that 40 trucks were expected to enter the northern villages, with another 40 headed to Madaya.

The situation in Madaya is the latest example of both sides using hunger as a weapon in Syria’s war, now in its fifth year. The town has attracted particular attention in recent days because of reports of deaths and images of severely malnourished residents that have circulated across social media. The images prompted a media war two weeks ahead of a new round of peace talks between the government and opposition expected to take place in Geneva.

Some government supporters have used social media to mock the photos, saying they were fake, while others claimed it was the rebels who were withholding food from needy residents. The aid group Doctors Without Borders says 23 patients have died of starvation at a health center it supports in Madaya since Dec. 1 — including six infants under 1 year of age and five adults over the age of 60.

Yacoub El Hillo, the U.N.’s Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, said almost 42,000 people in Madaya are at risk of further hunger and starvation. In Madaya, Al-Manar showed a group of people including women and children waiting for the convoys at the town’s main entrance. In interviews, they accused fighters inside of hoarding humanitarian assistance that entered the town in October and selling them to residents at exorbitant prices.

“Our children are dying of hunger,” a school teacher told the station, saying she walked to the entrance of the town to make sure she received the assistance directly. The U.N.’s World Food Program has said it will ship one month’s worth of food for more than 40,000 people to Madaya from Damascus, and enough for 20,000 people to Foua and Kfarya from the city of Homs.

Also Monday, SANA reported that rocket, presumably fired by rebels, hit a residential neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo, killing three children and wounding two other people. It said the Syrian army had begun a large offensive in the countryside to the west of the city.

And in the northern village of Kafranbel, two prominent activists were released after being detained by the extremist Nusra Front. The two men, Raed Fares and Hadi Abdullah, were abducted by Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, in an early morning raid Sunday that saw their opposition radio station, Radio Fresh, shut down.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and other sources inside Syria, reported their release some 12 hours later. The release was also noted on the station’s social media pages. In Damascus, Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli reasserted his country’s support for Syria at a joint press conference with his Syrian counterpart, Mohammad al-Shaar.

“The Syrian government has demanded our support against terrorism and we, anyway, stood alongside (President Bashar) Assad, who enjoys his people’s support,” he said. “We see the conditions in Syria are moving forward in a good way.”

Associated Press writers Brian Rohan and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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