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Amid shelling, U.N. convoy begins aid distribution in Syria’s Ghouta

A United Nations convoy carrying lifesaving assistance entered the besieged Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta Monday, aid workers said, amid a punishing government assault that has killed hundreds and created one of the worst humanitarian crises of the war.

The 46-truck convoy — which includes U.N. agencies, the International Committee for the Red Cross, and Syrian Arab Red Crescent — is the first to reach the besieged population since a government offensive to retake the area began last month.

Eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, is controlled by an array of Syrian rebel groups, and is one of the last remaining opposition strongholds near the capital. As many as 400,000 people are trapped inside the enclave, which suffers from severe shortages of food and medical supplies, the U.N. says.

“This assistance is a drop in an ocean of needs,” said Marwa Awad, spokesperson for the World Food Program in Damascus.

Awad, who was accompanying the convoy Monday, said WFP was carrying enough food assistance for 27,500 people, and supplies to treat 300 children for acute malnutrition.

“We’re hoping everything goes as planned,” she said. “So that we can reach those people in desperate need of humanitarian and food assistance.”

But even as the convoy reached the town of Douma — the largest in Eastern Ghouta — U.N. officials said many of the medical supplies had been removed from the trucks upon inspection by the Syrian government.

The area’s already decrepit hospitals have been overwhelmed by an influx of casualties in recent weeks, including more than 2,500 wounded residents. Nearly 600 people have died in Eastern Ghouta since Feb. 18, the U.N. said Sunday.

An official with the World Health Organization told the Reuters news agency that the supplies removed from the convoy included surgical kits, insulin, and dialysis equipment.

“We are hoping that we can bring those in on our next convoy on March 8,” Awad said of the supplies.

Still, it remained unclear if the convoy would be able to offload the aid before the fighting resumed Monday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government backs Syrian forces, last week ordered a daily “humanitarian pause” from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for aid distribution and medical evacuations.

The U.N. has said that five hours is an insufficient amount of time to provide the level of food and aid needed in Eastern Ghouta.

It will likely take “many hours” to unload the aid Monday, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Ali al-Za’tari, said, Reuters reported. The convoy may need to stay until “well after nightfall,” he said.

Meanwhile, government shelling and airstrikes were reported in the area.

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