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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon blasted Syria's warring parties on Thursday, particularly President Bashar al-Assad's government, for committing "atrocious acts" and "unconscionable abuses" against civilians.
Speaking after briefing the U.N. General Assembly on his 2016 priorities, Ban said harrowing images of starving civilians in the besieged town of Madaya reflected a new low in a war that had already reached "shocking depths of inhumanity."
"Let me be clear: the use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime," Ban told reporters. "I would say they are being held hostage, but it is even worse. Hostages get fed."
The U.N. Security Council will be briefed on Friday on the besiegement of some 400,000 people in Syria, diplomats said. The meeting was requested by Britain, France and the United States.
Aid was delivered to Madaya and two Shi'ite villages on Monday for the first time in months. Madaya is besieged by pro-Syrian government forces, while the two villages in Idlib province are encircled by rebels. More aid reached both areas on Thursday.
"All sides - including the Syrian government, which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians - are committing atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law," Ban said.
He said U.N. teams in Madaya had seen "scenes that haunt the soul."
"The elderly and children, men and women, who were little more than skin and bones: gaunt, severely malnourished, so weak they could barely walk, and utterly desperate for the slightest morsel," Ban said.
He said some 400 men, women and children in Madaya were in such a dire state from malnutrition and other conditions that they were in danger of dying and needed immediate medical attention, including possible evacuation.
Some 400,000 people in Syria were besieged - about half in areas controlled by Islamic State, some 180,000 in areas controlled by the Syrian government and about 12,000 in areas controlled by opposition armed groups, Ban said.
"In 2014, the U.N. and partners were able to deliver food to about 5 per cent of people in besieged areas. Today, we are reaching less than 1 per cent. This is utterly unconscionable," Ban said.
He urged key regional and world powers, specifically the International Syria Support Group, to press Syria's warring parties for sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access and an end to the use if indiscriminate weapons in civilian areas.
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by David Gregorio and Lisa Shumaker