U.S. urges Russia to push Syria for aid access to starving people

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States urged Russia on Tuesday to push the Syrian government to allow humanitarian access to besieged areas after a boy starved to death and three children died from landmine injuries in Madaya in the past week because they could not be evacuated.

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The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said less aid had reached besieged areas in Syria during March than in February, when world powers agreed in Munich to a cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian access.

U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien briefed the U.N. Security Council on the situation behind closed doors on Tuesday at the request of the United States. Power described his briefing as “extremely chilling, heartbreaking.”

“He described this boy who the U.N. tried to get evacuated (from Madaya),” she told reporters, holding a photo of the skeletal boy. “Because the Syrian government refused his evacuation, he died yesterday.”

She said it was “an abomination for a member state of the U.N. to be blocking food in the way that the Syrian government has done.”

The United Nations said 486,700 people are besieged in Syria - 274,200 people by government forces, some 200,000 people by Islamic State militants, about 12,500 people by armed opposition groups and Nusra Front, and another 6,000 people by both government and opposition forces.

“We and other council members have appealed to those with influence over a government that has proven itself susceptible to influence when the pressure is intense enough,” Power said. “It’s going to take a very, very large push to change the trajectory for people who are this malnourished.”

An International Syria Support Group, led by Russia and the United States, set up a humanitarian task force in February. Members of the task force are charged with using their influence over the warring parties to boost humanitarian aid access.

When asked about Power’s remarks, Russian Deputy U.N. Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said that was why the task force was set up. “It’s a better way to work together,” he said.

Power also spoke specifically about the town of Daraya, where the World Food Programme has said some people have been reduced to eating grass. She said people are skeletal and mothers are too malnourished to nurse their babies.

“Not one crumb of U.N. food has reached Daraya since 2012,” Power said.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Steve Orlofsky