UN slams Syria 'strategy' of forced evacuation of besieged towns

Nina LARSON
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Rebels and civilians were evacuated from the Syrian town of Daraya after a four-year siege by regime forces

Rebels and civilians were evacuated from the Syrian town of Daraya after a four-year siege by regime forces (AFP Photo/)

Geneva (AFP) - The UN Syria envoy on Thursday criticised Damascus' "strategy" of forced evacuation from Daraya following a brutal four-year government siege, warning that other besieged towns could follow.

Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva that there were "indications that after Daraya we may have other Darayas," adding that "there is clearly a strategy at the moment to move from Daraya" to other besieged areas "in a similar pattern".

Long held by opposition forces, Daraya near Damascus was ravaged by constant army bombardment, and just one aid convoy reached the town since it came under siege in late 2012 -- arriving in June this year.

Rebels said last week they were forced to agree to evacuate the town because of deteriorating humanitarian conditions.

Hundreds of fighters and their families were bused north into rebel-held territory in Idlib province, with other civilians transferred to government territory near Damascus for resettlement.

The Syrian army has said it is in complete control of the town, from where roughly 8,000 civilians were still due to be evacuated.

De Mistura warned there were "indications that after Daraya we may have other Darayas," pointing to worrying signs around the besieged towns of Waer and Moadamiyat al-Sham.

"If Daraya was a shock, Al Waer is 75,000 people," he pointed out.

- 'We all failed' -

Jan Egeland, de Mistura's deputy and head of a UN-backed humanitarian taskforce for Syria, described the forced evacuation as "heartbreaking".

He insisted that the devastating sieges in Syria could not be "broken by a population giving up after starvation and after bombing".

"A siege is lifted by humanitarian access and freedom of movement in and out by the civilian population," he said.

"We all failed the people of Daraya," he said, adding that the UN was receiving "urgent pleas" from besieged communities in Waer, Moadamiyat al-Sham, Madaya, Fua and Kefraya.

"They all fear for their future, and we need to break the sieges," he said.

The opposition High Negotiations Committee meanwhile charged that "local truce" agreements like the one agreed in Daraya were leading to "ethnic and political cleansing".

"The Syrian regime, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, is relentlessly pursuing a malicious plan to orchestrate extensive demographic shifts across Syria," HNC head Riad Hijab said in a statement late Wednesday.

Egeland meanwhile said that humanitarian aid reached just three besieged areas last month, with two convoys reaching Waer, one reaching Harasta, and continued air-drops over Deir Ezzor, which is held by the Islamic State group.

"September must be better," he said, adding that the humanitarian taskforce had yet to receive a reply to its request to access 1.2 million people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas with aid this month.

According to the UN, more than 590,000 people live under siege in 18 areas in Syria -- mostly by government forces. Nearly five million others live in areas that are difficult to access with aid.

More than 290,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011.