Food supplies began entering a besieged rebel-held Palestinian refugee camp in Syria's capital Saturday for the first time in months, an apparent goodwill gesture by the government ahead of a coming peace conference, a Palestinian official said.
The flow of food into the Yarmouk refugee camp came as the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group held a meeting Saturday in Istanbul to decide whether to attend the peace conference next week aimed at ending the country's bloody civil war.
The Syrian National Coalition is under huge pressure from its Western and Arab sponsors to attend the peace talks, scheduled to open Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux.
Many Coalition members are hesitant to attend a conference that has little chance of success and will burn the last shred of credibility the group has with powerful rebels on the ground, who reject the talks.
The Coalition could make the announcement regarding the peace conference later Saturday. The Syrian government has already said it will attend the talks.
In Damascus, Anwar Raja, a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, said the first batch of supplies entered the Yarmouk camp on Saturday.
7,000 boxes for 7,000 families
Yarmouk is one of the areas hardest hit by food shortages in Syria. Residents there say 46 people have died since October of starvation, illnesses exacerbated by hunger or because they couldn't obtain medical aid.
Raja said hundreds of boxes of food stuff entered the camp. He said much of the material was carried by members of PFLP-GC members and committees in the camp.
"The process is moving slowly since they are being carried on the shoulder to avoid sniper fire," Raja told The Associated Press in Damascus by telephone.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around the country, said an elderly man died in the camp earlier Saturday because of the food shortage.
PFLP-GC members are fighting against Syrian opposition fighters who control most of the camp.
Raja said the aim is to send 7,000 boxes for 7,000 families into the camp's rebel-held areas. He added that more food supplies will be sent into the camp in the coming days and later medical supplies will be sent as well.
He said committees in the camp will hand over the food boxes to families by name "so that (opposition) gunmen don't take them."
Aid blockage a war crime
The first badge of supplies arrived a day after the United Nation's top human rights official said that aid blockage at the Yarmouk camp could amount to a war crime.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay says numerous attempts by the UN and other organizations over the past four months to deliver aid to the 18,000 people in the camp have been thwarted.
Pillay said in a statement Friday that badly needed food and medical aid is not reaching malnourished children, women and elderly people close to starvation because of "a quagmire between besieging Syrian government forces and affiliated militias surrounding the Yarmouk camp, as well as anti-government armed groups operating inside."
Pillay says there have been reports of a number of deaths from starvation and from consuming rotten food.