Humanitarian groups have begun evacuating sick people from a rebel-held suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus.
The United Nations had called for an emergency evacuation of nearly 500 patients stranded in Eastern Ghouta, home to 400,000 residents, which has been cut off from food and medical aid since 2013. Many of them are children.
On Tuesday, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) said four patients, from a group of 29 critical cases approved for evacuation, have been transferred to hospitals in Damascus. The rest will be moved in the coming days.
The list of 29 includes 18 children and 4 women suffering from heart disease, cancer, kidney failure and blood diseases, in addition to cases requiring surgery not available in the besieged area.
SAMS said some 17 patients have died in recent months because of the ongoing siege and lack of medical care.
The International Committee of the Red Cross late Tuesday published pictures of ambulances brought in to carry out the evacuations. But it provided no details about how many people would be moved out of the area.
UNICEF said its aid workers described seeing one of the worst health situations since the conflict began in 2011 during a rare international aid convoy to a neighborhood in the Eastern Ghouta district at the end of November.
UNICEF said at the time that 137 children, aged between seven months to 17 years, required immediate evacuation for conditions that include kidney failure, severe malnutrition and conflict wounds.
Last week Jan Egeland, the United Nations humanitarian adviser for Syria, said 494 people were on the priority list for medical evacuations.
“That number is going down, not because we are evacuating people but because they are dying,” he said. “We have tried now every single week for many months to get medical evacuations out, and food and other supplies in.”