BEIRUT - The U.N. reached thousands of beleaguered Syrians with emergency food relief for the first time in over a month on Monday, amid warnings that conditions outside the Syrian capital have deteriorated to desperate levels under a suffocating government blockade.
The U.N.'s humanitarian agency, the World Food Program, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent announced that they were able to reach the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus with enough food for 40,000 people.
The supplies cover only a fraction of the estimated 350,000 people in need in the eastern Ghouta region, according to U.N. figures. It is one of the last remaining pockets of opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad and depends on relief and smuggling to survive an enduring government siege.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which operates across conflict lines, announced it had completed its measles vaccination campaign in Eastern Ghouta. It said it had vaccinated 48,000 children over two drives, in May and October this year.
Photos of children gaunt with hunger in eastern Ghouta shocked observers last week, and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein called the siege "an outrage."
At least 11 people were killed by government shelling on Sunday, including on a kindergarten in the town of Kafr Batna.
"The people here do not want assistance, they want someone to break the blockade and stop the shelling. The relief we've received will not last for even a few days," said local activist Anas al-Dimashqi, who spoke to The Associated Press through WhatsApp messages.
The delivery coincided with the resumption of talks between the government, rebels, and their international sponsors Russia, Turkey, and Iran in the Kazakh capital of Astana. It is the seventh round of talks since January this year, focused on "de-escalating" the six-year-long Syrian civil war — primarily by freezing the lines of conflict and allowing aid to flow to nearly a million Syrians trapped under siege.
Progress is being made at a snail's pace and the eastern Ghouta suburbs have seen conditions deteriorate in recent weeks.
Food supplies have withered since the government cut smuggling routes to the enclave in May. In late September, shelling of the beleaguered enclave resumed after a few months' reprieve.
Activists say local businessmen are hoarding food and medical supplies to raise prices, compounding the dire situation.
The government routinely blocks aid convoys from reaching areas opposed to its rule. Eastern Ghouta was one of the hubs of the 2011 uprising against Assad. The last convoy to reach the enclave arrived on September 25.
In Astana, Russia's envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentyev said his country was considering hosting intra-Syrian talks.
Russia is one of the so-called guarantors to the Astana agreements that mandate the unimpeded flow of aid to Ghouta and three other contested regions in Syria. It is also one of Assad's most steady military and diplomatic backers in the war.
State news agency RIA Novosti said a "Congress of National Dialogue" for Syria could be held in Sochi in mid-November.
The office of the U.N.'s envoy to Syria, Staffan De Mistura, who has been party to talks in Astana and Geneva, declined to comment on the possibility. It said Geneva talks are slated to resume on November 28.