Hundreds evacuated from besieged district of Syrian capital

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Aid agencies in Syria have evacuated hundreds of people from the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Yarmouk, a government-aligned Palestinian group said yesterday, in a rare moment of coordination between the government and rebel forces.

Granting relief groups access to an estimated 250,000 people trapped by fighting across Syria was one of the goals of the peace talks held last week in Switzerland, which adjourned on Friday with no substantial results.

Despite lengthy discussions, the sides could not agree on passage for an aid convoy to reach 2,500 people trapped in the old city of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, with no access to food or medicine.

Anwar Raja, a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), which operates in Yarmouk, said the group had coordinated with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent on Friday and yesterday to extract “hundreds” of the suburb’s residents.

The evacuees were transported to several government-run hospitals and one operated by the Red Crescent, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. The Red Crescent could not be reached to confirm the details of the operation.

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which cares for Palestinian refugees, said it had continued distributing humanitarian aid to Yarmouk.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said almost 3,000 food parcels had reached the camp since Jan. 18, when it gained access. Each parcel can feed a family of eight for about 10 days, meaning that needs still far outstrip aid deliveries.

According to the United Nations, at least 15 people have died from malnutrition in Yarmouk, originally a Palestinian refugee camp, which now houses some Syrians alongside 18,000 Palestinians.

“Residents including infants and children have been subsisting for long periods on diets of stale vegetables, herbs, powdered tomato paste, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water,” said Gunness.

Opposition activists say the government is using hunger as a weapon of war but Damascus accuses rebels of firing on aid convoys and says it fears aid supplies will go to armed groups.

Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with popular protests against Assad, but evolved into a civil war after a crackdown by security forces led to an armed uprising.

More than 130,000 people have been killed and about six million have fled their homes.

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