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Syrian Government accused of committing slow-motion ‘Slaughter’ of People Trapped by War

Physicians for Human Rights said many others suffered avoidable deaths because military forces stripped medical supplies from aid convoys that did manage to enter besieged and hard-to-reach areas

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ADVANCE TO GO WITH STORY UNITED NATIONS-SYRIA-HUMANITARIAN AID BY EDITH M. LEDERER, FILE -- This Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015 file photo, hundreds of Syrians mingle amid rubble before going out of town to buy food and other essential materials as they wait in line at a military checkpoint in the town of Beit Sahm, south of the capital, Damascus, Syria. A new report by Physicians for Human Rights accuses the Syrian government of "slow-motion slaughter" of unknown numbers of Syrians trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas by willfully denying them food and health care, which it calls a war crime. (AP Photo, File)
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The Syrian government committed “slow-motion slaughter” of unknown numbers of Syrians trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas by willfully denying them food and health care, according to a new report Tuesday from a civil rights group.

Physicians for Human Rights says in the report that the Syrian government consistently exploited a new U.N. aid delivery system, depriving millions of Syrians unable to leave their towns and cities of critically needed food and medicine. The group called that a war crime.

Officials in Damascus declined to comment.

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The New York-based advocacy group said a new two-step approval process for aid convoys that Syrian and U.N. officials agreed to in April 2016 “fell abysmally short” of its aim of ensuring access to all Syrians in need because the government in Damascus retained “unilateral authority” over who received assistance.

Besides the unknown numbers of Syrians that have starved to death, Physicians for Human Rights said many others suffered avoidable deaths because military forces stripped medical supplies from aid convoys that did manage to enter besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

“Still others bleed to death from war-related injuries – or die in childbirth, or from other preventable causes – because their besiegers refuse to allow the sick and injured to be evacuated to medical care,” the rights group said.

The report called on the United Nations to carry out deliveries to the most difficult areas without prior government approval, and to document and quickly report attempts to restrict or block convoys. And it called on the Syrian government not to block, restrict or delay aid convoys.

PHP cited data from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs saying that by early December 2016, 4.9 million Syrians lived in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, “including about 975,000 under active siege, most of them – about 850,000 – by Syrian government forces.”

In 2015, U.N. agencies completed 32 convoy deliveries to just 620,500 people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

Physicians for Human Rights analyzed the U.N. data from OCHA for 2016 and reported that the number of aid convoys to those areas increased significantly to 131 – but it said “the increased deliveries were vastly insufficient to meeting rapidly growing needs across the country.”

Only 24 percent of the people living in besieged and hard-to-reach areas received aid between May and December, after the two-step process took effect, it said.

One factor, the report said, was the Syrian government’s rejection from May through December of access to one-third of the people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas that the U.N. sought to help, which left, on average, nearly 340,000 people without aid every month, “many for months on end.”

While the government approved aid to two-thirds of the areas requested from May through December, Physicians for Human Rights said U.N. convoys only reach 38 percent of the approved population.

“On average, U.N. agencies were unable to deliver aid to more than 500,000 people for whom Syrian authorities had approved access each month during this time period,” the report said.

The data analysis showed that on average the U.N. actually reached a decreasing number of people each month in 2016.

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“Thus, the increased approval rates throughout 2016 were meaningless at best, as they failed to produce increased aid deliveries,” the report said. “At worst, this pattern reflects an effort by Syrian authorities to appear cooperative while still ensuring that access to besieged areas remained blocked.” (VOA)

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Civilians Who Fled Afrin Suffer from Dire Humanitarian Conditions

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People sit in a truck with their belongings in the north east of Afrin, Syria, March 15, 2018. VOA

Thousands of civilians who fled the city of Afrin are enduring dire conditions after they reached Syrian-controlled areas south of the Afrin district.

“More than 2,000 people reached the towns of Nubl and Zahraa from Afrin in the past 24 hours, raising the number of total civilians in the two towns to 16,000. Many are suffering from tragic conditions,” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights website.

Turkish media announced the control of Afrin on Sunday, after the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) withdrew from the city and thousands of civilians were evacuated — 59 days after the launch of Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish military operation in Afrin.

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The Observatory said Nubl and Zahraa were struggling to provide shelter and food for the large numbers of displaced people pouring into the towns.

Sumama Al-Ashkar, a journalist in Nubl and Zahraa, told VOA that people were residing in houses, mosques, schools, public halls and warehouses.

“The civilians in Nubl and Zahraa are able to get some aid and services, but those who went to Tal Rifat in northern Aleppo are struggling to survive,” he said.

ALSO READ: Gulf, West grapple with Syrian refugee crisis

The U.S. State Department issued a statement on Monday expressing deep concern about reports coming from the predominantly Kurdish city in the past 48 hours.

“It appears the majority of the population of the city … evacuated under threat of attack from Turkish military forces and Turkish-backed opposition forces. This adds to the already concerning humanitarian situation in the area, with United Nations agencies reporting a displaced population in or from Afrin district in the hundreds of thousands, who now require immediate shelter and other assistance to meet basic needs,” the statement said.

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Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army soldiers walk in city center of Afrin, northwestern Syria, March 18, 2018. VOA

Destruction and looting

A number of reports circulated in the media said Turkish-backed forces were destroying and looting public and private properties after they entered the city.

The Afrin media center said once the Turkish-backed fighters reached the town center, they destroyed a statue placed in the center of the city that represents Kurdish cultural figure Kawa the Ironsmith.

“Kawa the Ironsmith is a major historical symbol for the Kurdish people, as it is linked to the most important Middle Eastern holiday, the Nawruz,” Afrin Media Center said.

Footage coming from Afrin also showed Turkish-backed fighters pillaging homes, shops and military sites amidst chaos. They were seen carrying food, electronic devices, civilian cars, farmers’ tractors and livestock.

Members of the Syrian opposition condemned the looting and destruction of the city and called for holding the looters responsible for their acts.

The General Military Staff of the Syrian Interim Government, an alternative government of the Syrian opposition, issued a statement Monday calling for the Turkey-backed Syrian rebels to protect civilians and their properties, and to respect religious and ethnic installations in Afrin.

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Turkish soldiers, positioned in the city center of Afrin, northwestern Syria, March 19, 2018, a day after they took the control of the area. VOA

In a comment to CNN, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Erdogan, did not deny the reports of looting but said the actions were committed by some groups who disobeyed their commanders. He said reports were being investigated.

Guerilla war

On Sunday, Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim told ANF, the Kurdish News Agency, that the fight in Afrin entered a new phase, where the YPG and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) will continue to resist in the district.

Muslim added that the civilians had to leave the city for their own protection and vowed to step up the fight.

“The existence of civilians in the city will impose a challenge for our fighters. Our enemy kills civilians and strikes hospitals, and since the Turkish offensive started, civilians were targeted. Now, the war will continue in a different way after civilians left the city,” Muslim said.

A number of humanitarian organizations and civil society groups working north and east of Syria, including the Kurdish Red Crescent, issued a joint statement calling on the international community to act.

“We plea to the international community to intervene immediately to stop these attacks and let the refugees return to their homes, protect their possessions and civil rights, and deliver aid to thousands of people [who] fled this war,” the statement said Monday. VOA