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UN evacuates hundreds from Syrian towns as peace talks unravel

The UN has launched an evacuation in four besieged towns, including Madaya, where numerous people died from starvation last year. The operation was staged as the Saudi-backed opposition left peace talks in Geneva.

On Wednesday, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric announced that a humanitarian task force had launched an evacuation, adding that there was no timeframe for when the operations would be completed.

"Plans are underway to evacuate some 500 people, including the sick, wounded and their family members, from the besieged four towns - Fuaa, Kafraya, Madaya and Zabadani - in urgent need of life-saving medical attention," said Dujarric.

Some 250 people will be taken from two government-held towns and another 250 from two rebel-controlled municipalities as part of the negotiated operation.

"The sad thing is, we should not have to negotiate medical evacuations," Dujarric added.

Starvation as a weapon

Madaya, a town under siege by government forces,

gained notoriety last year when dozens of people died from starvation, sparking international condemnation. In January, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the use of starvation in Syria's conflict as a

"war crime."

More than 270,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted when government forces launched a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down.

The humanitarian operation comes on the heels of the Saudi-backed opposition alliance's decision to

suspend its participation in UN-brokered peace talks

aimed at ending the five-year conflict.

The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which serves as an umbrella group for rebel forces, said it "remains fully committed to the political process and establishing peace through diplomacy."

However, HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet said it would not participate in talks with al-Assad while civilians are being killed, claiming that a

ceasefire

brokered by the US and

Russia

had been violated more than 2,000 times by government forces.

"It is not suitable, neither morally nor on the humanitarian side, to be part of negotiations when Syrians are dying daily from sieges, hunger, bombings, poisonous gases and barrel bombs," said HNC leader Riad Hijab.

Meanwhile, Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria's ambassador to the UN, described the HNC as a group of "extremists, terrorists and mercenaries," saying only those who reject terrorism could be part of a "broad-based unity government." Damascus considers all rebel groups fighting to overthrow al-Assad to be "terrorists."

Watch video 02:22

Syria: A lost generation? | DW News

ls/ (dpa, AP, AFP)

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