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UN: Madaya suffering has no comparison, even for Syria

UN refugee agency chief says there is 'no life' in besieged Syrian town, cut off by pro-government forces for almost four months
Syrians wait for the arrival of an aid convoy on 11 January 2016 in the besieged town of Madaya (AFP)

The suffering in the Syrian town of Madaya is the worst seen in the country's civil war, the United Nations said on Tuesday, a day after delivering aid to the area besieged for months. 

"There is no comparison in what we saw in Madaya," the UN refugee agency's chief in Damascus, Sajjad Malik, told journalists in Geneva, when asked to compare the devastation in the town to other areas in Syria.

He said there were "credible reports" of people starving to death during the months-long siege by pro-government forces. 

A convoy of 44 trucks from the UN, Syrian Red Crescent and International Red Cross delivered emergency food supplies to Madaya on Monday, in the first aid to reach the area since October. 

"There was no life," said Malik, who was in the convoy, describing a town of desperate people who in many cases were too weak to voice outrage over their suffering. 

Food has been so scarce that people "repeatedly mentioned that a kilo of rice would cost $300 (275 euros)", Malik said. 

One family "sold a motorbike to get five kilos of rice," he added, detailing the extent of the devastation among the town's estimated 40,000 inhabitants. 

"Whatever we had in the cars, we gave to them," Malik said.  

His comments came after UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien said 400 of those trapped in Madaya needed evacuation from the town immediately.

"Around 400 are in need of being evacuated for life-saving medical attention," O'Brien said in New York. "They are in grave peril of losing their lives."

Meanwhile, the United Nation's top aid official in Syria warned Tuesday that "many more will die" unless government forces and rebels lift their sieges of towns across the country.

"It must stop," said Yacoub El Hillo, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Syria. "Many more will die if the world does not move faster."

The United Nations has asked the Syrian government and allied armed groups controlling access to the town to allow the 400 Syrians to be transported out of Madaya, he said.

An additional 21 trucks delivered supplies to Shia-populated Fuaa and Kafraya, two other towns besieged by the armed opposition groups.

The UN security council met to discuss the situation in Madaya where residents told AFP they had resorted to eating grass and killing cats for meat to survive.

The medical charity MSF says 28 people have starved to death since 1 December.

US Ambassador Samantha Power said "over 400 people are on the brink of death in need of immediate medical evacuation" from Madaya.

UN officials are hoping to carry out the evacuation on Tuesday.

Permission for secure access must come from "all the parties who govern any of the routes that need to be deployed, either for the ambulances or for any kind of air rescue," said O'Brien.

Syria's UN envoy Bashar Jaafari dismissed reports of starvation in Madaya as fabrications and accused "terrorists inside" the town of stealing the supplies.

According to the UN, 4.5 million Syrians are living in besieged or hard-to-reach areas and desperately need humanitarian aid. Civilians are prevented from leaving and aid workers are blocked from bringing in food, medicine, fuel and other supplies.

More than 260,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government demonstrations.