U.N. delivers food to residents of besieged Damascus suburb

BEIRUT Thu Jan 30, 2014 7:14pm EST

Trucks carrying food aid from UNRWA, enter a checkpoint manned by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, as they make their way to the besieged camp of al-Yarmouk, south of Damascus, which is controlled by opposition fighters, January 13, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

Trucks carrying food aid from UNRWA, enter a checkpoint manned by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, as they make their way to the besieged camp of al-Yarmouk, south of Damascus, which is controlled by opposition fighters, January 13, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A United Nations agency delivered food to a rebel-held Damascus district on Thursday, alleviating the plight of thousands of people trapped for months by a Syrian army siege.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which cares for Palestinian refugees, said it had distributed 1,000 food parcels in Yarmouk camp, its biggest delivery there yet.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said the aid was the first to reach Yarmouk since January 21 when 138 food parcels were sent in. Each parcel can feed a family of up to 8 for about 10 days, meaning the people's needs still far outstrip aid deliveries.

"We hope to continue and increase substantially the amount of aid being delivered," said Gunness. "With each passing hour their need increases."

Syria's state news agency SANA confirmed the aid delivery, saying Yarmouk's residents were "held hostage by armed terrorist groups" - its usual description of rebel forces.

UNRWA had blamed the authorities for preventing its convoy from reaching the neighborhood on Sunday. Two weeks earlier, aid convoys turned back after a government escort was fired on.

Some 15 people are reported to have died from malnutrition in Yarmouk, originally an impoverished Palestinian refugee camp which now houses 18,000 Palestinians, as well as some Syrians.

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

Syrian state television said the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front had fired on aid workers and wounded several people during the distribution. The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that unknown assailants had fired bullets.

It was not clear if this had prevented some of the aid from reaching Yarmouk's residents and UNRWA did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the incident.

At peace talks between the two sides in Geneva, the United Nations is trying to negotiate passage for an aid convoy for 2,500 people also under siege in the old city of Homs.

Gaining access for relief groups to reach an estimated 250,000 people trapped by fighting in Yarmouk, Homs and other areas is seen as a test for the peace talks, which began last week and have not yet produced substantive results.

Syria's conflict began with popular protests against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, 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.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin and Oliver Holmes; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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