Desperately needed aid entered a battered rebel enclave near Syria's capital on Monday, the first time supplies have been delivered there since mid-February, even as government troops continued their all-out offensive to rout opposition fighters in the area.
According to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, a 46-truck joint-aid convoy bearing food baskets as well as medical and nutritional supplies lumbered into Duma, the de facto capital of the rebel-held enclave of east Ghouta, about seven miles northeast of central Damascus.
But the reprieve came at a price: It was the bloodiest day since a truce was unilaterally announced by Russia last month, with about 80 people killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group based in the U.K. that relies on activists based in Syria.
In a statement released Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which also took part in the operation, said it delivered 5,500 food parcels, along with 5,500 bags of flour from the World Food Program, aimed at assisting 27,500 people. Each food basket, which comprises basic foodstuffs such as rice, pulses, salt, sugar and cooking oil, feeds a family of five for one month.
The convoy also included "vital medical and surgical items such as dressing materials."
"It's a first step. We've been waiting for this for a really long time, but it's one of what we hope will be several convoys," said Linda Tom, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, in a phone interview Monday.
She added that another convoy slated to enter later in the week would complete delivery of aid to 70,000 people — well below the amount needed for the estimated 393,000 people in the besieged enclave.
However, said Tom, the government blocked a significant portion of medical items from entering the enclave, which rebel factions are struggling to defend against a ferocious Russian-backed onslaught. Two weeks after it began, the assault has killed an estimated 775 people and wounded nearly 4,000 others, according to the Syrian Observatory group.
The offensive, activists say, has forced hundreds of thousands of people to go underground, with entire families hiding in basements while a lethal combination of Russian and Syrian air power and artillery and mortar fire pounds their neighborhoods.
The blocked medical supplies included trauma kits and surgical items, as well as basic medications such as insulin and antibiotics, said Tom, who described the injunction on these items as an "ongoing problem."
"In the morning, when we found out these medical supplies were being pulled, three of the trucks were only half full," she said.
"We didn't even have the opportunity to replace those items."
Fighting raged throughout the enclave even as aid personnel were unloading the cargo in Duma, with sounds of fighting heard a few miles away from the convoy, said the Syrian Observatory group.
The shelling, said Sajjad Malik, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees' representative in Syria, forced the convoy to retreat before completing its delivery. The opposition's health directorate in the area said at least nine trucks left Ghouta with their cargo still to be unloaded.
Pro-opposition activists reported airstrikes on several towns in the enclave — this despite a daily, five-hour cessation of hostilities unilaterally announced by Russia last week aimed at giving civilians the opportunity to leave the area via a corridor established in the northeastern part of Ghouta. (The daily pause, scheduled between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., has had little effect since its announcement; there were unconfirmed reports that two children were the only people to have left through the corridor.)
"A five-hour truce? Where is this truce? What does it mean? And what is this aid they talk about?" said Abu Khaled Ghoutani, the nom de guerre of an opposition activist in the town of Saqba reached via the WhatsApp messaging service on Monday. He added that his area had been pummeled by airstrikes, forcing him and his family to switch shelters three times in the last two weeks.
"We hate the U.N. We hate the International Committee [of the Red Cross]. All their promises are lies," he said.
Meanwhile, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that army units had continued operations against the opposition factions arrayed against Syrian President Bashar Assad, while "continuing to provide a safe passage for the besieged civilians."
Monday's advance brought two flanks of pro-government troops to within two miles of each other, with one pushing into the eastern edge of Ghouta, while another is set to surround the town of Harasta, activists said.
The Syrian Observatory group added that the advance has spurred a mass exodus, with hundreds of families fleeing toward the center of the enclave before the government's onslaught.
A number of world powers, including the U.S., condemned the offensive.
On Sunday, the White House released a statement calling for an end to hostilities around east Ghouta and for the "unfettered delivery of humanitarian aid."
It also excoriated Russia, Assad's top international backer, saying Moscow had ignored the terms of the cessations of hostilities and was killing "innocent civilians under the false auspices of counter-terrorism operations."
But the government said it would continue the battle to oust the rebels so as to secure areas around the capital. The rebels have lobbed thousands of rockets and mortar shells at neighborhoods in Damascus.
In a televised interview with local media on Sunday, Assad insisted there was "no contradiction" between the truce and the combat operations and dismissed statements by Western leaders about civilian casualties as part of a media campaign against Syria.
"This campaign aims to galvanize terrorism and the terrorists after the successive attacks" by the Syrian army, he said.
Bulos is a special correspondent.
4:15 p.m.: This article was updated with new figures for those killed and wounded.