250,000 Syrians trapped in Islamic State siege, watchdog warns

At least 250,000 people in an eastern Syrian city are under siege by Islamic State forces who are preventing the delivery of food and medical supplies, a monitoring group said Wednesday. 

The price of food has rocketed in three government-held districts in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour since the jihadists sealed off the areas in early 2015, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"Those people need urgent help by the international community as they are under siege and are unable to get their voice through to the world," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The warning came two days after the town of Madaya, besieged by government forces for six months, received its first supplies since October.

Reports of starvation in Madaya, a rebel-held mountain town near the Lebanese border, had caused a global outcry. The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders says almost 30 people have died there for lack of food since early December.

The United Nations says nearly 400,000 of the 4.5 million people living in what it terms "hard-to-reach" areas of Syria are living under siege.

"The sieges of all towns and villages across Syria need to be lifted, immediately and simultaneously," Robert Mardini, Middle East director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said Wednesday.

"Whilst we wait for the sieges to be lifted, there needs to be unconditional, rapid and regular access given for humanitarian convoys to all these areas so that lives can be saved," he added.

In Geneva, senior officials from the five permanent UN Security Council member countries met Wednesday to prepare for peace talks between Syria's warring sides. They are set for January 25.

In the meeting, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura stressed “the crucial importance for the people of Syria to see sustained and unimpeded access to a number of besieged areas in the lead-up to the talks." 

The officials from the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China said they would "press for immediate action in support of this effort in the coming few days," de Mistura's spokeswoman Jessy Chahine said.

Before the gathering of all the UN veto powers, US Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov and de Mistura in Geneva.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's fate is still a sticking point among major world powers.

Russia and Iran refuse any agreement that would force al-Assad to step down, while the US and other countries backing the rebels want him out of power.

The Syrian government is prepared to attend the Geneva talks, but has demanded to first see the list of opposition representatives who would attend.

Kurdish-led forces who have been very effective in fighting Islamic State on the ground have also demanded to be represented at the talks.

De Mistura is working hard to ensuring an invitation policy that was as inclusive as possible, his spokeswoman said.

In recent months, key world powers have stepped up diplomatic efforts to reach a political end to Syria's conflict, which is estimated to have claimed more than 250,000 lives.

Last update: Wed, 13/01/2016 - 22:28

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