Residents of a besieged Syrian town have told U.N. investigators how the weakest in their midst, deprived of food and medicines in violation of international law, are suffering starvation and death, the top U.N. war crimes investigator told Reuters on Tuesday.
An aid convoy on Monday brought the first food and medical relief for three months to the western town of Madaya, where 40,000 people are trapped by encircling government forces.
Another United Nations official who oversaw the aid delivery described on Tuesday how he saw malnourished residents, particularly children, some of whom were little more than skeletons and barely moving.
The U.N. commission of inquiry documenting war crimes in Syria has been in direct contact with residents inside Madaya, the commission's chairman Paulo Pinheiro said in an emailed reply to Reuters questions.
"They have provided detailed information on shortages of food, water, qualified physicians, and medicine. This has led to acute malnutrition and deaths among vulnerable groups in the town." he said in the email sent from his native Brazil.
The U.N. inquiry, composed of independent experts, has long denounced use of starvation by both sides in the Syrian conflict as a weapon of war, and has a confidential list of suspected war criminals and units from all sides which is kept in a U.N. safe in Geneva.
"Siege tactics, by their nature, target the civilian population by subjecting them to starvation, denial of basic essential services and medicines," Pinheiro said on Tuesday.
"Such methods of warfare are prohibited under international humanitarian law and violate core human rights obligations with regard to the rights to adequate food, health and the right to life, not to mention the special duty of care owed to the well-being of children."
Rebel forces are also besieging the government-held villages of Foua and Kafraya in Idlib province, where U.N. supplies were also delivered on Monday, Pinheiro noted. Islamic State fighters are besieging government-held areas of Deir al-Zor, he added.
Yacoub El Hillo, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria, told of heartbreaking scenes when the aid convoy made it to Madaya on Monday.
"We saw people who are clearly malnourished, especially children, we saw people who are extremely thin, skeletons, that are now barely moving," he told reporters in New York by phone from Damascus, saying all sides in the civil war were using siege as a tactic of war.
"We saw people that are desperate, people that are cold, people that angry, people that have almost lost hope that the world cares about their plight," he said. "Many more will die if the world does not move faster."
Other aid workers witnessed similar scenes. "It's really heartbreaking to see the situation of the people," said Pawel Krzysiek of the International Committee of the Red Cross. "A while ago I was just approached by a little girl and her first question was did you bring food ... we are really hungry."
The World Health Organization said it had asked the Syrian government to allow it to send mobile clinics and medical teams to Madaya to assess the extent of malnutrition and evacuate the worst cases.
A local doctor said 300 to 400 people needed special medical care, according to Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO representative in Damascus who went into Madaya with the convoy.
"You could see many were malnourished, starving. They were skinny, tired, severely distressed. There was no smile on anybody's face," she told Reuters by telephone from Damascus. "The children I talked to said they had no strength to play."