Aid groups launched their largest delivery of assistance yet in war-torn Syria on Thursday after the UN evacuated hundreds of besieged residents, intensifying relief efforts even as peace talks falter.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said that the 65-truck convoy of food and medicines to the besieged rebel-held town of Rastan was the first aid it had been able to deliver to the area's 120,000 residents since 2012.
Earlier, the United Nations evacuated 500 people "in urgent need of life-saving medical attention," and their families, from four other besieged towns, two held by the government and two by rebels.
The two relief operations came after the Syrian opposition walked away from UN-backed peace talks complaining that more needed to be done to relieve civilians in rebel-held areas.
More than four million people live in besieged or hard-to-reach areas with little or no access to food or medicines.
ICRC spokesman Pawel Krzysiek said Thursday's convoy was carrying food parcels, wheat flour and other nutritional items, as well as medicines and equipment to improve water supply in Rastan, a rebel-held enclave in the central province of Homs that has been under army siege since 2012.
"This is the largest joint humanitarian convoy we have done in Syria so far," he told AFP.
Once they reach Rastan, ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent teams will assess the water and waste infrastructure, as well as the nutritional and other needs of residents.
Many of the 120,000 people living in and around the town had fled fighting in neighbouring Hama province.
The United Nations carried out the medical evacuations from the four besieged towns in a carefully synchronised joint operation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent that lasted through Wednesday night.
At dawn on Thursday, the evacuees were brought to a staging area in a rebel-held part of central Syria before being transported on for treatment, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
Exactly 250 evacuees were brought out of the besieged rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus.
The same number were evacuated from Fuaa and Kafraya, pro-government towns under siege by Islamist rebels.
The UN had announced earlier this month that it would try to carry out a large-scale medical evacuation from the four enclaves.
IS group evacuates Syria town
Such operations can take weeks to organise, although rebels, regime forces and even jihadist groups have been ready to strike local deals to enable aid deliveries or large-scale evacuations.
Late Wednesday, nearly 500 people – including fighters of the Islamic State jihadist group and their families – quit a flashpoint town east of Damascus.
The Observatory said that a deal between IS fighters, residents and regime forces saw the jihadists leave Dumeir, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the capital.
IS and its jihadist rival Al-Qaeda are not party to an increasingly strained truce between the government and non-jihadists rebels.
The "cessation of hostilities" came into force on February 27 and initially saw a significant reduction in bloodshed.
Although none of its signatories have officially declared the truce dead, violence has surged in recent weeks, particularly in and around Idlib and the battleground northern city of Aleppo.
On Tuesday, suspected government air strikes on the Idlib province towns of Maaret al-Numan and Kafranbel hit two markets, killing at least 44 civilians, according to the Observatory.
Both towns are controlled by Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and so are not covered by the ceasefire.
But the strikes drew a furious reaction from the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) which said they vindicated its decision to suspend its participation in UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva.
New air strikes
The Observatory reported new air strikes on Thursday against rebel-held towns in Homs province in central Syria that are covered by the truce.
Some of the strikes involved barrel bombs, crude munitions infamous for their indiscriminate nature, the Britain-based watchdog said.
The UN, as well as Russia and the United States – who brokered the truce – are desperate to see it hold long enough to secure a negotiated settlement of the five-year conflict.
But the walkout by the HNC has left a political solution increasingly distant, and has emboldened the government delegation to take a tougher line on any settlement.
The government's chief representative in Geneva Bashar al-Jaafari said his delegation would continue with the UN-brokered indirect negotiations.
But he said only opposition members "who reject terrorism (and) who do not work for the sake of a foreign agenda" would be permitted to join a "broad-based unity government."
That would appear to rule out the HNC, whom he described as a group of "extremists, terrorists and mercenaries" working for Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the opposition's main backers.
The regime's main supporters are Iran and Russia.
Moscow announced last month that it was scaling back the military intervention it launched in September in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
But NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday that Russia "maintains a considerable military presence in support of the Assad regime in Syria."