12 Jan 2016

Siege and starvation tactics 'a war crime'

8:38 pm on 12 January 2016

New Zealand is pleading a case on the world stage for 400 people fighting for their lives in Syria, saying the starvation of people in the besieged town of Madaya was a war crime.

Gerard van Bohemen - New Zealand's permanent representative to the UN - called a Security Council meeting today to discuss reports of people dying of starvation.

He said a convoy of supplies had arrived in Madaya but there needed to be unimpeded and sustained access to all those in need.

A Syrian child eats a fruit on the outskirts of the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Madaya.

A Syrian child eats a fruit on the outskirts of the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Madaya. Photo: AFP

New Zealand and Spanish ambassadors have called for the urgent evacuation of 400 people in dire need of medical evacuation.

The United Nations says 4.5 million Syrians are living in besieged or hard-to-reach areas and desperately need humanitarian aid.

Reports have emerged of tens of thousands of civilians trapped for months without supplies and are starving to death.

Mr van Bohemen said he had spoken to the leader of the first aid convoy into Madaya.

"People are very pleased that the convoy has got through today and were briefed on the state of the populace. Things are in a very bad way."

Mr van Bohemen said all the UN paperwork had been done to provide humanitarian aid but what was needed now was action.

"It has a special product already ... which we renewed last year to deal precisely with this situation and has strengthened language on access to procedures in hard-to-get areas, so we have all the legal requirements needed," he said.

"It's now action on the ground is what is required."

Mr van Bohemen said the tactic of siege and starvation was one of the most appalling characteristics of the Syrian conflict.

War crime

Mr van Bohemen's Spanish counterpart, Roman Marchesi, agreed.

"Besieging with the goal of starvation is a war crime," he said.

"We are going to follow this issue very closely. I won't say day by day, I will say on an hour basis."

Mr Marchesi said only 4 percent of aid went through to Syrian people in need in 2015.

But there looked to be little support from Syria on the stance.

The Syrian Ambassador told reporters the pictures of staving people were "fabrications".

He said his government was committed to "cooperate fully" on aid delivery but said much of what was said about Madaya was "based on false information".

However, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien said the reports of people starving to death in Madaya were "wholly credible".

Aid being distributed

Distribution of aid has continued to 40,000 people who have been trapped for six months by a government blockade and without aid since October.

Simultaneously, aid lorries entered two villages besieged by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib under a deal between the warring parties.

The situation in Foah and Kefraya is also said to be extremely dire, with an estimated 20,000 people trapped there since March.

The arrival of the aid was delayed until both sets of lorries were ready to enter.

Pawel Krzysiek, who is with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Madaya, said after arriving: "The people... were coming every five minutes asking, 'listen did you bring food, did you bring medicine?'

"Some are smiling and waving at us but many are just simply too weak, with a very bleak expression, too tired."

In total, some 44 lorries operated by the UN, the ICRC, the Syrian Red Crescent and the World Food Programme reached Madaya from the capital, Damascus.

They were carrying basic food items - including rice, vegetable oil, flour, sugar and salt - as well as water, infant formula, blankets, medicines and surgical supplies.

Marianne Gasser, head of the ICRC's Syria delegation, said the deliveries should not be one-offs.

She said: "To relieve the suffering of these tens of thousands of people, there has to be regular access to these areas."

Madaya, which is about 25km north-west of Damascus and 11km from the border with Lebanon, been besieged since early July by government forces and their allies in Lebanon's Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement.