Aid convoy reaches under-siege Syrian town
One of the largest ever international aid convoys has reached a government-besieged opposition stronghold in Syria.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that together with the UN, it is delivering its largest humanitarian aid convoy, destined for Rastan, an opposition-held town under siege in the central Homs area.
The aid convoy is the first to reach the town of Rastan in over a year, ICRC spokesman Pawel Krzysiek said.
Mr Krzysiek said about 120,000 people live in the area. Rastan has seen its population double because of the influx of people fleeing nearby fighting.
The convoy is made up of 65 trucks containing food, medicine and medical equipment, electricity generators and water treatment materials.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, said there has been "real but modest" progress in the country's humanitarian situation.
Mr de Mistura, the UN envoy, said he would address the "next steps" in the UN-brokered peace talks on Friday after the Western-backed opposition walked out, accusing President Bashar Assad's government of trying to wreck the negotiations with new fighting.
Mr de Mistura called for improved aid access to besieged areas, which he said would boost the chances of salvaging the teetering ceasefire.
"Bottom line: If humanitarian aid increases as they should be and the cessation of hostilities goes back into what we would consider a hopeful mood that would certainly help the political discussions," he said.
The US-Russia-engineered ceasefire between Assad's government and rebel fighters, which went into effect in late February, has excluded Islamic State (IS) and al Qaida's branch in Syria, designated as terrorist organisations by the United Nations.
The truce has significantly reduced violence in Syria but has all but collapsed in the north of the country.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that the suspended participation of the Syrian opposition in the Geneva talks could lead to "a return of total armed conflict".
"We have a situation where terrorists are desperately trying to disrupt the political process," she said, referring to the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee, which said it is halting its involvement in talks.
Ms Zakharova told reporters in Moscow that the armed standoff in Syria is growing, especially to the north and south of Aleppo.
While the Russian official blamed Turkey for continuing to destabilise Syria by colluding with extremist groups, US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes expressed his country's concern about Russia's build-up in Syria.
Mr Rhodes addressed reports that Russia was moving military personnel and equipment back into Syria, weeks after Moscow said it would scale back its presence.
A Russian air campaign aiding the Syrian government launched in September has significantly reversed the tide of the war in recent months, enabling government advances.
"It would be negative for Russia to move additional military equipment or personnel into Syria," Mr Rhodes said. "We believe that our efforts are best focused on supporting the diplomatic process."
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg echoed that stance, saying that Russia has maintained a "considerable military presence" in support of the Syrian government despite announcing a partial withdrawal.
Speaking in the Turkish capital Ankara, Mr Stoltenberg said the ceasefire was "under strain" but remains the "best basis for a negotiated, peaceful solution to the crisis".
Despite the dire straits in the political talks, Mr de Mistura said there has been modest progress in the humanitarian situation in Syria - where aid convoys have reached 560,000 people in hard-to-reach and besieged areas. He also said six areas remain off limits to the aid convoys.
Mr de Mistura said 515 people were medically evacuated on Wednesday from four communities, Zabadani, Madaya, Kfarya and Foua, besieged by government and rebel groups. He said it was one of the largest evacuations of residents from besieged areas.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARC) said its convoy came under fire during the evacuation from Madaya and Zabadani, besieged by the government forces in rural Damascus.
In a statement, the SARC said one of its vehicles, clearly marked, was hit but that the team carried on with its mission. A photograph posted on SARC's website shows the rear window of the vehicle damaged from what appears to be a bullet that hit right next to the large white and red SARC logo.
Mr de Mistura also said there were eight airdrops of aid in Deir el-Zour, a stronghold of IS which is locked in a fight over control of the province with the government.
A vaccination programme is expected to begin later this month to reach more than two million children, he said.
Mr de Mistura said some medical supplies and medicines are still not being allowed into besieged areas by the Syrian health ministry.
"This is not only worrisome but unacceptable according to international law."
Dialysis equipment has been allowed in, he said.