The first trucks carrying desperately needed aid entered the besieged Syrian town of Madaya on Monday, where more than two dozen people are reported to have starved to death.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said two trucks loaded with food and blankets entered the rebel-held town late afternoon, at around the same time a military source said three others entered each of the government-controlled towns of Fuaa and Kafraya.
Relieved residents of Madaya — which has been encircled by President Bashar al-Assad\’s forces for six months — said they had resorted to extreme measures to survive.
"For 15 days we have been eating only soup," Hiba Abdel Rahman, 17, told AFP. "I saw a young man killing cats and presenting the meat to members of his family as rabbit."
"Some people went through garbage bins, others ate grass. We sought food from the fighters but they refused to give it to us."
Ali Issa, a father of eight, said they had run out of everything, even money to buy what little food could be smuggled through at exorbitant prices.
The International Committee of the Red Cross hailed the first deliveries and spoke of the "heartbreaking" condition of the people in Madaya.
"The operation has started. It is likely to last a few days. This is a very positive development," said Marianne Gasser, head of the ICRC\’s Syria delegation.
"But it must not be just a one-off distribution. To relieve the suffering of these tens of thousands of people, there has to be regular access to these areas," she said in a statement.
ICRC spokesman Pawel Krzysiek who reached Madaya with the first trucks said the "first impression is really heartbreaking".
"We see a lot of people on the streets. Some are smiling and waving at us but many are just simply too weak, with a very bleak expression, too tired," he said in an audio message.
Krzysiek said a little girl approached him and asked: "Did you bring food… because we are really hungry… and she looked hungry".
The UN World Food Programme said the supplies could feed more than 40,000 people for one month, and the ICRC said it was taking enough medicine for three months, as well as emergency surgical items and blankets.
The operation organised jointly with the Red Crescent gathered steam after Assad\’s regime gave permission for the deliveries on Thursday.
It comes after an outpouring of international concern and condemnation over the dire conditions in Madaya and footage on social media networks showing emaciated children.
A pair of elderly women were seen sitting on suitcases as Red Crescent official said a dozen of residents would be evacuated from the town.
Since December 1, some 28 people had died of starvation in Madaya, according to Doctors Without Borders, a Paris-based charity known by its French acronym MSF.
Fifty trucks bearing the Red Crescent symbol were on their way to Madaya and 21 heading to Fuaa and Kafraya, which are home to 20,000 people, the ICRC said.
The trucks were also carrying water, baby milk and medication.
The three towns, along with rebel-held Zabadani near Madaya, were part of a landmark six-month deal reached in September for an end to hostilities in those areas in exchange for humanitarian assistance.
A first aid delivery went ahead in October and in December some 450 fighters and civilians were evacuated from Zabadani, Fuaa and Kafraya.
MSF said 28 people have died of starvation in Madaya since December 1, including five on Sunday alone, one of them a nine-year-old boy.
"MSF-supported medics in the besieged town have 10 critical starvation patients needing urgent hospitalisation," the charity said, adding that 200 more are malnourished.
Last week, the UN said only 10 percent of its requested aid deliveries to hard-to-reach and besieged areas of Syria last year were approved and carried out.
More than 260,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government demonstrations.
The United States and Britain on Monday appealed for an end to all sieges in Syria, while French President Francois Hollande called for the immediate establishment of "humanitarian measures".
"Starving civilians is an inhuman tactic used by the Assad regime and their allies," said Matthew Rycroft, the British ambassador to the UN.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said "full access" to besieged towns is needed, urging all parties to cooperate.
Also on Monday, a Russian air strike on a school in northern Alepppo province at least 14 children and five adults, one of them a teacher, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Russia, a staunch ally of Assad, began a campaign of air strikes in support of the regime in late September.
It says it is targeting the Islamic State group and other "terrorists" and has dismissed reports that its raids have killed hundreds of civilians as "absurd".