Meanwhile, aid convoys set off for the second day this week to deliver food and medicine to three besieged Syrian towns. United Nations officials have said that it took more than three months to secure access to the towns, and that many residents, including children, had died of hunger and disease in that time.
“Let me be clear: The use of food as a weapon of war is a war crime,” Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday in a speech to the General Assembly. “All sides, including the Syrian government,
which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians, are committing atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law.”
The remarks were among the toughest yet on the subject by Mr. Ban, who is in the final year of his 10-year term. The United Nations estimates that about 400,000 Syrians have been denied humanitarian aid because their towns or neighborhoods are besieged by one side or another in the civil war.
“Tomorrow,” Mr. Ban warned, “there must be accountability for all those who play with people’s lives and dignity in this way.”
The Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Friday to discuss the siege situation.
Trucks carrying food, medicines, blankets and other supplies to ward off the severe winter cold set off from Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Thursday morning bound for Madaya, Fouaa and Kfarya in Idlib Province, according to Jens Laerke, a spokesman in Geneva for the United Nations agency that coordinates humanitarian aid.
Another convoy is expected to be sent to the town of Zabadani, close to the border with Lebanon, within a few days, the United Nations said.
A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Dibeh Fakhr, said 44 trucks had been sent to Madaya and 17 to Fouaa and Kfarya. Along with the supplies, the trucks carried health experts and nutritionists to assess the condition of trapped civilians, Ms. Fakhr said.
Relief workers who reached Madaya on Monday said they were told that some residents had died of starvation, and that as many as 400 people needed to be evacuated for medical treatment. Though the relief workers reached the town after dark and could see little of the overall situation there, what they saw was enough to prompt alarm, according to Elizabeth Hoff, the World Health Organization’s representative in Damascus.
“I saw an elderly woman who said she hadn’t eaten for 20 days,” Ms. Hoff said in a telephone interview after returning to Damascus. She said she had also encountered a young boy in Madaya who said his brother was too weak to look for food at the market where the convoy distributed aid.
Twelve people have been evacuated from the town for medical care since Monday, Ms. Hoff said, some of them to Damascus and others to a hospital near Madaya.
The World Health Organization was “very serious, really demanding” access to Madaya and other besieged areas, she said, and had asked the Syrian government to let it send mobile clinics and medical teams. Some towns have been cut off from food and other supplies for much longer than Madaya, Ms. Hoff said.
Dominik Stillhart, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told reporters at the United Nations on Thursday that it was untenable to have to negotiate for months just to deliver food and medicines to one or two towns. All the sieges must be lifted, he said, and “we think there is a window of opportunity to make a significant step forward” to achieve that.
The head of the United Nations commission investigating human rights in Syria said the reports from aid workers were consistent with the testimony it has received from people living in the besieged areas. The investigators plan to compile that testimony and issue a report by the end of the month, according to Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the commission.
Syria’s warring parties are all engaged in “this illegal, medieval, criminal practice of sieges,” Mr. Pinheiro said in a telephone interview from São Paulo, Brazil.
Starving Syrians in Madaya Are Denied Aid Amid Political Jockeying (10 January 2016)
Starving Syrians told: `Give up the rebels, and you will have food` (1 February 2014)
Photo: Baby Israa al-Masri died of a hunger-related illness on 11 January 2014 in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp. Source; AP.