THE Syrian government committed “slow-motion slaughter” of an unknown number of Syrians trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas by wilfully denying them food and health care, according to a new report from a civil rights group.

Physicians for Human Rights said in the report that the government consistently exploited a new UN aid delivery system, depriving millions of Syrians who were unable to leave their towns and cities of desperately needed food and medicine. The group called that a war crime.

The New York-based advocacy group said a new two-step approval process for aid convoys that Syrian and UN officials agreed to in April 2016 “fell abysmally short” of its aim of ensuring access to all Syrians in need because the government in Damascus retained “unilateral authority” over who received assistance.

Besides the unknown numbers of people who have starved to death, Physicians for Human Rights said many others suffered avoidable deaths because military forces stripped medical supplies from aid convoys that did manage to enter besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

“Still others bleed to death from war-related injuries, or die in childbirth, or from other preventable causes because their besiegers refuse to allow the sick and injured to be evacuated to medical care,” the report said.

It called on the UN to make deliveries to the most difficult areas without prior government approval, and to document and quickly report attempts to restrict or block convoys. It also called on the Syrian government not to block, restrict or delay aid convoys.

The group cited data from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) saying that by early December last year some 4.9 million Syrians lived in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, “including about 975,000 under active siege, most of them – about 850,000 – by Syrian government forces”.

It said only 24 per cent of people living in besieged and hard-to-reach areas received aid between May and December last year, after the two-step process took effect.