First aid convoy since 2012 reaches Syrian suburb

AP News
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Posted: Jun 01, 2016 11:42 AM

BEIRUT (AP) — A besieged suburb of Syria's capital received humanitarian aid Wednesday for the first time since 2012, as the United Nations said it was looking into "every possible means" to reach besieged Syrians now that a deadline set by world powers has passed.

Elsewhere in Syria, Kurdish-led fighters aided by U.S.-led airstrikes launched a new advance on the northern town of Manbij, an Islamic State stronghold on a key supply route linking the Turkish border to Raqqa, the extremist group's de facto capital.

U.N. spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero said the "main priority" is to access 592,700 people in besieged areas and millions more in hard-to-reach areas facing severe food shortages.

The International Committee for the Red Cross reported that a joint convoy with the U.N. and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent entered the Damascus suburb of Daraya in the afternoon. The U.N. estimates that 4,000 to 8,000 people currently live in the suburb.

Daraya has been subject to a crippling government blockade since residents expelled security forces in the early stages of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad.

A 36-truck aid convoy entered neighboring Moadamiyeh, which is also under government siege, around the same time. The suburb last received aid one month ago.

The Russian military, which has been carrying out airstrikes since September to bolster Assad's forces, said earlier in the day that the government had agreed to a 48-hour cease-fire around Daraya.

The U.S.- and Russia-led International Syria Support Group last month called on the U.N. to "immediately carry out a program for air bridges and air drops for all areas in need" starting June 1 if it was denied access to designated areas. The U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has called air drops, which cost more than land delivery, a "last resort."

The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia that includes Arab fighters, have meanwhile approached to within 14 kilometers (nine miles) of Manbij. The SDF announced a campaign to advance on areas around Raqqa, the de facto capital of the IS group's self-styled caliphate, last week.

"There are tens of casualties among fighters and evacuating civilians," said Nasser Haj Mansour, an adviser to the SDF. "Daesh is using its entire means to stop the forces," he told the AP by telephone from near the front line, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighters had recaptured at least 16 villages from IS. The monitoring group, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said coalition airstrikes supporting the advance have killed 15 civilians in the past 24 hours.

The Observatory said coalition aircraft struck at least one bridge between Manbij and Jarablus, a town on the Turkish border under IS-control. An IS-affiliated news agency said coalition aircraft bombed all bridges between the two towns.

The SDF has also launched an offensive to capture the IS-held Tabqa air base, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Raqqa. Mansour said the air base is a "major weapons depot" for the extremist group.

IS seized Tabqa in 2014 and massacred at least 160 captured Syrian soldiers.

Turkey's state-run news agency meanwhile said coalition airstrikes and Turkish artillery fire killed 14 IS militants near the Turkish border. The Observatory said no casualties had been inflicted.

The Anadolu Agency, citing military officials, said Wednesday that the strikes by U.S.-led coalition jets targeted IS positions north of the city of Aleppo, destroying a tank, two mortar positions, a headquarters' building and three vehicles. It said the strikes came after Turkey's military had determined that IS was preparing to attack Turkish territory from the region.

The report could not be independently verified. Turkey has not explained how it counts casualties in Syria.

Cross-border fire from Syria has killed 21 people and wounded dozens of others in the border town of Kilis this year.

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With additional reporting by Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva.