GENEVA — The starvation and bombardment of Syrian civilians in a long-besieged Damascus suburb overshadowed efforts on Thursday by United Nations diplomats to inject life into another round of peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the nearly seven-year-old war.
The special United Nations humanitarian adviser for Syria, Jan Egeland, expressed outrage over what he described as heavy casualties in the suburb, Eastern Ghouta, and the inability of aid workers to help the 400,000 residents trapped there.
“There has been massive loss of life — hundreds and hundreds have been wounded,” Mr. Egeland said, describing Eastern Ghouta as an unfolding “catastrophe.”
As fighting has declined in large parts of the country, Eastern Ghouta has become an epicenter of the conflict in recent weeks, largely severed from supplies of food and medicine and under constant bombing by the Syrian Air Force and shelling by pro-government and rebel ground forces.
Russia, the Syrian government’s most important ally, told the United Nations on Wednesday that it had arranged a two-day truce in the area, but the fighting has continued. “In general, there is no calm in this de-escalation zone. There is only escalation in this de-escalation zone,” Mr. Egeland told reporters.
Amnesty International reported Thursday that Syrian aircraft had attacked Eastern Ghouta with cluster munitions over the past 10 days, and accused the government of President Bashar al-Assad of “war crimes on an epic scale.”
The organization said at least 10 civilians had been killed by the cluster munitions, which are internationally banned weapons that disperse bomblets that fan out, killing and maiming indiscriminately.
Earlier in the month, doctors in Eastern Ghouta supported by the Syrian American Medical Society said they had treated people showing symptoms consistent with exposure to chemical agents, possibly phosphorous.
The United Nations has reported soaring rates of malnutrition among Syrian civilians in combat zones amid food prices that have spiraled upward.
“Malnutrition amongst kids, children and the elderly is a common sight, and anyone with chronic disease is just counting the days, dying slowly,” said Ahmad Khanshour, 32, an Eastern Ghouta resident reached by phone.
An aid convoy managed to reach Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday but carried food for just 7,000 people. Food deliveries since the start of the year have reached only around a quarter of Eastern Ghouta’s population, the top relief official at the United Nations, Mark Lowcock, told the Security Council this week.
“We need sustained calm to be able to feed 400,000 people who now beyond doubt are in a humanitarian emergency,” Mr. Egeland said.
He was especially critical of the government for what he called its obstruction of evacuations for the critically ill in Eastern Ghouta, to hospitals a short drive away. Nine children died in the past few weeks because the government had not authorized their evacuation, Mr. Egeland said.
“It’s troubling, it’s intolerable,” he said.
At a meeting in Geneva on Thursday officials from major powers, including the United States and France, and the Syrian government’s main supporters, Russia and Iran, had all committed to use their influence to ease the humanitarian crisis. “It would be incredible if they cannot deliver a simple evacuation of mainly women and children, a 40-minute drive to Damascus city,” Mr. Egeland said.
His account of conditions close to the Syrian capital provided a pessimistic backdrop to the long-troubled efforts of the special United Nations envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to make progress in discussions with government and opposition negotiators. The eighth round of those discussions began this week.
Mr. de Mistura said before the latest round began that he hoped to get talks moving forward on issues including a new constitution and elections, and to achieve the first direct negotiations between the two sides. So far, they have met in separate rooms.
But there was no sign of movement to direct talks by Thursday, when negotiators from both sides met simultaneously with Mr. de Mistura and his deputy at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. The delegations remained in separate rooms discussing “general principles,” according to an opposition spokesman, Yahya Aridi.
Opposition groups arrived in Geneva with a single delegation, a common platform and what they called a commitment to talk without preconditions. Still, they say Mr. Assad should leave office at the start of any political transition.
Government negotiators, signaling their disdain, delayed arrival in Geneva beyond the scheduled start of talks and have said nothing publicly.
Independent analysts see no sign of willingness by the government to make concessions given that its military is gaining ground, albeit with dependence on Russian and Iranian help.
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