Jamaica Gleaner / BEIRUT (AP):
Syria’s government is allowing the evacuation of nearly 30 critically ill people from a besieged Damascus suburb, where hundreds requiring medical treatment have been prevented from reaching hospitals minutes away.
The government recently tightened its siege of eastern Ghouta, home to some 400,000 people, leading to severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine as winter sets in.
Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus, said four patients were allowed to leave Tuesday and 25 others are expected to be let out in the coming hours.
It is not clear if all will be evacuated in one batch Wednesday or over several days. The ICRC is partnering with the local Syrian Arab Red Crescent to handle the evacuations. SARC spokeswoman Mona Kurdi said the evacuees arrived in hospitals in government-controlled Damascus, just a few minutes’ drive away.
The Army of Islam, a prominent rebel group in eastern Ghouta, said the critically ill will be evacuated as part of a deal that was conditional on it releasing an equivalent number of captives.
“There are many more people who need to be evacuated. We hope this will be only the beginning,” Sedky said.
The evacuees included three children, as young as one year old, and one adult. The patients, who travelled with family members, needed immediate treatment for cancer, kidney failure and haemophilia.
At least five detainees were evacuated from eastern Ghouta late Tuesday.
Some patients may not be able to leave eastern Ghouta for government-controlled areas, because they either fear conscription into the army or detention for having lived or worked in opposition areas.
For weeks, the UN has been calling on the government to allow some 500 critically ill people to leave the suburb for treatment and to expand aid groups’ heavily restricted access to the area. Activists in eastern Ghouta have circulated photos online of severely malnourished children. The UN says one in eight children in eastern Ghouta is going hungry, up from one in 50 in May.