sirija damask.jpg
Photograph: HINA

Syrian government forces launched a ground assault Saturday against the besieged town of Daraya outside Damascus, days after turning back a UN aid convoy to the area, activists and a monitoring group said.

Regime forces assaulted southern parts of the town after midday, accompanied by heavy artillery shelling, a local activist who asked to be known only as Fadi told dpa.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy fighting between Islamist rebels and regime forces in southern Daraya, which neighbours the capital's key al-Mezzeh airbase.

"Daraya is strategic for its location near al-Mezzeh military airbase and is also key to the army's bid to work on driving opposition fighters from areas close to the capital Damascus," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

On Thursday government forces refused to allow a UN and Red Cross aid convoy to enter Daraya, despite the government previously granting clearance.

The convoy was supposed to deliver essential medical supplies, including vaccinations, as well as food for children, hygiene items and school kits.

The town's residents are suffering severe shortages and malnutrition, according to local activists. In Facebook videos posted by activists inside the town, residents said they urgently needed food and essential medicines.

Daraya's plight has angered the Syrian opposition, which cited the lack of aid deliveries to besieged areas as one of its reasons for suspending participation in peace talks in Geneva.

"Daraya has been the site of relentless fighting for more than three and a half years, and we know the situation there is desperate," Yacoub El Hillo, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria, said after the convoy was turned back.

Russia and the US last week pledged to press the parties to the conflict to ensure delivery of aid to beleaguered areas, including Daraya.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir hosted US Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday in Jeddah for talks on the Syrian civil war.

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