BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government officials promised to allow food into a rebel-held town near Damascus that has been under military blockade for months, on condition that residents raise the Syrian national flag and rebels hand over heavy weapons, said activists on Thursday.
Residents of Moadamiyeh, west of the capital, and rebels in the town agreed to the terms, and on Thursday residents were flying the national flag of red, black and white strips, with two green stars, over buildings, said the spokesman of the local town council.
The raising of the flag is a symbolic victory for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad as it battles rebels who have seized a ring of neighborhood around the capital, a major front in the nearly 3-year-old civil.. The secular opposition in the uprising against Assad uses a different flag with green, white and black stripes and three red stars.
Syrian government officials typically do not comment on truce deals. The timing may be to bolster Assad's position ahead of internationally-brokered peace talks that are set for January.
Rebel-held Moadamiyeh has been under a strict blockade for months by Syrian forces stationed at its entry roads, forbidding the entry of food, fuel and clean water. Activists have warned for months that malnutrition is rife among its estimated 8,000 civilians. They have said children and the elderly have been badly affected and frequently fall sick with illnesses exacerbated by hunger.
The council spokesman, an opposition activist who goes by the nickname Qusai Zakarya, said the deal allowed for the daily, limited entry of food, ensuring that residents could be quickly blockaded again.
The truce deal was reached Wednesday, Zakarya said. "Most of the (town's) leaders are against it, but there are 8,000 hungry people here, and nobody helped us." Zakarya spoke on condition he be identified only by his nickname for security reasons.
Rami Abdurrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which obtains its information from a network of activists on the ground, also confirmed the truce deal.
Zakarya said the government has still not let in the first food shipment, apparently because it wants a military committee to sweep through Moadamiyeh to seize any heavy weapons. The agreement also demands that only registered residents of Moadamiyeh may remain in the town, in a condition likely to thin rebel ranks.
The Western-backed exiled opposition group, the Syrian Coalition, said the deal demonstrated how Assad's government used "food as a tool of war."