Violence across Syria as peace conference begins

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Associated Press

Posted on January 22, 2014 at 2:03 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 22 at 2:07 PM

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Government forces and rebels clashed across Syria and aid groups called on the international community to ensure that supplies reach millions of desperate civilians, as a peace conference to end the country's civil war started Wednesday in Switzerland.

The statement by seven international aid and rights groups said the humanitarian crisis unleashed by the three-year conflict "defies the basic norms of a civilized world." Activists say the conflict has killed more than 130,000 and forced millions more from their homes. An estimated 9 million people now need United Nations aid to survive.

As the conflict grinds on, government forces and to a lesser degree, rebels, have besieged areas under the control of their opponents to prevent food, medicine and other necessities from entering.

One of the worst-hit areas is the Yarmouk area on the southern fringe of Damascus, where activists say around 50 people died of starvation and hunger-related illnesses since the government imposed a blockade on the sprawling district a year ago.

In days of efforts, the U.N. said it had only managed to deliver a few hundred food parcels to residents in Yarmouk. That included a mere 26 parcels providing food for just over 300 people on Tuesday, said U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness.

Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, which entered the camp with the aid convoy, aired footage of one man weeping as his wife held up their crying baby.

"My daughter is urinating blood," the man said. "Please let us out of this camp."

Rami al-Sayed, a videographer and resident in the Yarmouk camp, said only a tiny amount of aid entered because government officials ordered aid workers to distribute the parcels in an area under sniper fire.

He called it a publicity stunt. "The regime wants photos of people receiving food while they are in (Switzerland). They want to show they aren't blockading or starving people," he said.

The need to open humanitarian corridors to relieve some of the suffering is one of the expected topics of the peace conference that opened Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland.

The seven aid and rights organizations called on leaders attending those talks to push for "urgent humanitarian access to Syria."

"Half of the country is now dependent on humanitarian aid and millions of people still cannot access life-saving assistance. In some areas disease and starvation are rife," the groups said in a statement.

The signees included Amnesty International, Care USA, and World Vision.

Meanwhile, clashes erupted between government forces and opposition fighters in the suburbs of Damascus, in the province of Daraa in the south, in Idlib and Aleppo in the north and the central province of Homs, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said.

In an apparent effort by the government to reinforce the impression that its forces are gaining ground around the northern city of Aleppo, state TV said the first civilian flight into city's airport in more than a year brought in a group of journalists. The international airport had been closed since December 2012 due to fighting and repeated attacks by rebels.

Government troops have been on the offensive for days near the Aleppo International Airport and a nearby military air base.

Also Wednesday, the Syrian Justice Ministry dismissed a report alleging Syrian authorities tortured prisoners as "politicized and lacking objectiveness and professionalism."

The ministry's statement came after three prominent international war-crimes experts said they had received a huge cache of photographs documenting the killing of some 11,000 detainees by Syrian authorities.

In the 55,000 digital images, smuggled out by an alleged defector from Syria's military police, the victims' bodies showed signs of torture, including ligature marks around the neck and marks of beatings, while others show extreme emaciation suggestive of starvation.

The report — which was commissioned by the Qatar government, one of the countries that are deeply involved in the Syrian conflict and a major backer of the opposition — could not be independently confirmed.

The Justice Ministry called the report a "gathering of images of unidentified people, some of whom have turned out to be foreigners." The ministry said some of the people were militants killed during battles. It said others were killed by militant groups.

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Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.

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