Madaya, Syria: A convoy carrying desperately needed food and medicine entered the hunger-stricken Syrian town of Madaya on Thursday, the second delivery of aid this week after months of government siege.
Six white trucks emblazoned with the logo of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent entered the town -- where the United Nations says suffering is the worst seen in Syria's nearly five-year war -- late on Thursday afternoon, an AFP reporter said.
Dozens of additional trucks were waiting on the edges of the town after arriving from Damascus as part of the convoy carrying flour and other foodstuffs, medical supplies and a range of basic supplies.
The town's 40,000 residents have endured a crippling siege by pro-government forces that has drawn sharp condemnation from the UN and world powers.
More than two dozen people have reportedly starved to death since December, sparking a global outcry.
A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said the convoy included a total of 44 aid trucks.
"The priority is wheat flour and washing materials," Pawel Krzysiek told AFP.
Medical teams were aboard the trucks and "the ICRC is also bringing a nutritionist for a proper assessment" of residents, he said.
A separate convoy of 17 trucks left the capital for Fuaa and Kafraya, two towns in Syria's northwest encircled by rebels, and the aid was to enter all three places simultaneously, Krzysiek added.
'This cannot go on'
According to Al-Manar, a station operated by Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, at least three trucks had also entered Fuaa and Kafraya.
Thursday's delivery to Madaya follows one on Monday that was the first humanitarian assistance received by the town in nearly four months.
In a statement Thursday, the ICRC's top official in Syria, Marianne Gasser, said Madaya's suffering was "heartbreaking".
"People are desperate. Food is in extremely short supply. It is the elderly, women and children who are suffering the most, especially from severe malnourishment... This cannot go on," Gasser said.
The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said a third delivery to the towns would take place "in the following days".
"We are encouraged that we have been able to reach these towns, where thousands of people have been trapped for very long periods of time," the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Yacoub El Hillo, told reporters.
"We do not want to see this as a one-off," he said. "Ultimately the real solution to this predicament, to the plight of the people besieged in these towns, is for the siege to be lifted."
He said the World Health Organisation was in direct talks with Syrian authorities to secure the evacuation of Madaya residents in need of urgent medical care.
"We found very urgent cases in Madaya that need to be quickly transferred to hospitals for treatment. We hope that this will happen in the coming days," El Hillo said.
Calls for evacuations
So far, one eight-year-old girl in need of specialised care had been taken out of Madaya along with her parents and was receiving treatment in Damascus, he added.
The UN has called for nearly 400 residents of the town who need immediate medical care to be evacuated.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said Wednesday that world powers would push for "immediate action" to deliver aid to besieged areas in Syria, after talks in Geneva with ambassadors from the Security Council's permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
Madaya, the nearby opposition-held town of Zabadani, as well as Fuaa and Kafraya, are part of a landmark UN-brokered truce deal between rebels and regime fighters reached in September.
OCHA spokeswoman Linda Tom said aid agencies had made several requests to also access Zabadani but had yet to receive authorisation.
"The humanitarian community stands ready to deliver there in the course of the coming days as soon as it is approved," she told AFP by email.
The Syrian government and the United Nations have championed such localised ceasefire deals as a way to end fighting across Syria, where more than 260,000 people have been killed since 2011.
A new round of Syrian peace talks is planned for January 25 in Geneva, but there are fears that a diplomatic row between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who back opposing sides in the war, could derail the process.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to try to shore up the fragile peace process in talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in London on Thursday.