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Largest Syria aid convoy reaches Rastan

BBC News BBC News 21/04/2016
Map of besieged towns © BBC Map of besieged towns

The largest aid convoy so far in Syria has reached a besieged rebel-held town in the centre of the country.

Smoke rises from a rebel-held area of Aleppo after a suspected government air strikes (18 April 2016): Escalating fighting in the north-west has left the cessation of hostilities on the verge of collapse © Reuters Escalating fighting in the north-west has left the cessation of hostilities on the verge of collapse

Sixty-five lorries are delivering food and medicine to about 120,000 civilians in and around Rastan, in Homs province.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent convoy is the first to reach Rastan since 2012.

A key aim of the fragile cessation of hostilities that has been in place for nearly two months was to allow aid to be delivered more widely across Syria.

On Wednesday, hundreds of sick and wounded people were evacuated from four besieged rebel- and government-held towns as part of a deal overseen by the Syrian Red Crescent.

However, such aid operations have been jeopardised by escalating fighting in the north-west, particularly around the divided city of Aleppo.

Fear of return to 'total conflict'

ICRC spokesman Pawel Krzysiek said the convoy to Rastan was carrying food parcels, wheat flour and other nutritional items, as well as medicines and equipment to improve the water supply.

"We are hoping that this is one of many humanitarian convoys still to come, not only to Rastan but to other besieged places in Syria," he said in a video posted on Twitter as the convoy arrived.

Mr Krzysiek said ICRC and Red Crescent teams planned to assess the water and waste infrastructure in Rastan, as well as the nutritional and other needs of its population, which has doubled because of an influx of people fleeing fighting.

As the convoy arrived, UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva that there had been "modest but real progress" on the delivery of humanitarian aid to the almost 500,000 people living in besieged areas, but "not enough for us to feel comfortable at all".

Rastan, about 20km (12 miles) north of the city of Homs, has reportedly been the target of government air strikes in recent days, as the cessation of hostilities brokered by the US and Russia appeared on the verge of collapse.

The main opposition umbrella group on Tuesday suspended its participation in UN-led peace talks in Geneva in protest at what it said were repeated government violations of the truce, which took effect on 27 February.

The government has accused rebel groups in recent days of taking part in assaults around Aleppo carried out by jihadist groups excluded from the cessation of hostilities, while the rebels say they are defending themselves from attacks.

Russia, which launched an air campaign to bolster its ally President Bashar al-Assad in September, warned on Thursday that the opposition's decision to pull out of the Geneva talks could lead to "a return of total armed conflict".

"We have a situation where terrorists are desperately trying to disrupt the political process,'' Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

Speaking at a Gulf Co-operation Council summit in Saudi Arabia, US President Barack Obama urged all "external actors" to work together to end the war.

He added that in a telephone conversation on Monday he had told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that he needed to be "holding the regime to account".

The US, which backs the opposition to Mr Assad, also expressed concern about reports that Russia was moving military personnel and equipment back into Syria, five weeks after announcing that most of its forces would be withdrawn.

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