France, U.K., U.S. call for UN meeting on lifting Syrian sieges

The United States, France and Britain called Thursday for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to press Syria's warring parties to lift sieges on towns where hundreds of thousands have been cut off from aid and reports of starvation have emerged.

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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also stepped up the pressure, calling for both the Syrian government and rebels to end the sieges before peace talks scheduled for Jan. 25 in Geneva as a confidence-building measure.

Ban said the United Nations and its humanitarian partners are able to deliver food to only 1 per cent of the 400,000 people under siege in Syria, down from an already dismal 5 per cent just over a year ago.

"This is utterly unconscionable," Ban said at a news conference.

Ban said both the Syrian government and rebels are committing war crimes by deliberately starving civilians and must face justice.

"UN teams have witnessed scenes that haunt the soul. The elderly and children, men and women, who were little more than skin and bones: gaunt, severely malnourished, so weak they could barely walk, and utterly desperate for the slightest morsel," Ban said. "I would say that they are being held hostage -- but it is even worse. Hostages get fed."

France's UN mission said a request for an emergency meeting was made Thursday to Uruguay, which holds the rotating Security Council presidency. Britain's mission said the meeting was requested for Friday afternoon, but it has not yet been scheduled.

Trucks from the UN and other humanitarian organizations entered three besieged communities in Syria this week for the first time in months.

The town of Madaya has been under siege for months by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The two other towns, Foua and Kfarya, have been besieged by Syrian rebels.

"Let me be clear: the use of the starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime," Ban said. "All sides, including the Syrian government, which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians, are committing this and other atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law."

In a speech to the General Assembly earlier Thursday, Ban said all sides must be held accountable. He told reporters later that it would be up to the Security Council to decide whether to refer the matter the International Criminal Court. Such efforts have been vetoed in the past by Russia, an ally of the Assad government.


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