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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

UN demands end to starvation of Syrian civilians

Rights chief issues call after seeing photos of starving children in government-besieged area near Damascus

Hala, a two-year-old girl suffering from the lack of medical care and adequate nourishment, at her home in the rebel-held Syrian town of Saqba in Eastern Ghouta. Abdulmonam Eassa / AFP
Hala, a two-year-old girl suffering from the lack of medical care and adequate nourishment, at her home in the rebel-held Syrian town of Saqba in Eastern Ghouta. Abdulmonam Eassa / AFP

The United Nations on Friday condemned the "deliberate starvation of civilians" as a war tactic after photographs showed severely malnourished children in an area near Damascus besieged by Syria's military.

The UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said the pictures were "a frightening indication of the plight of people in Eastern Ghouta", which has been under siege by government forces for more than four years.

"The deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law," a statement issued by the UN rights chief said.

Asked if Mr Al Hussein was accusing president Syrian Bashar Al Assad's regime of deliberately starving non-combatants, his spokesman said: "He is raising the possibility that that is what's happening."

Read more: The tragic story of Sahar, victim of Assad’s barbaric siege of Ghouta in Syria

Eastern Ghouta is one of the areas covered in a deal between rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran earlier this year to create "de-escalation zones".

One of the aims was to facilitate aid access to besieged areas but humanitarian conditions remain dire in Eastern Ghouta.

Mr Al Hussein called the suffering of civilians in the region "an outrage".

He also accused armed rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta of restricting the work of humanitarian organisations.

Eastern Ghouta, which lies outside the capital Damascus, was once a prime agricultural region.

But the rebel stronghold has been under a tight government siege since 2013, causing shortages of food and medicine.

The region has been devastated by years of fighting, with government air strikes and shelling bringing down multi-storey buildings and rendering whole streets uninhabitable.

Basic services for the region's estimated 400,000 residents are virtually non-existent, with electricity produced only by generators and the water available often dirty.