DAMASCUS, Syria, April 21 (UPI) -- The seemingly largest evacuation operation in the five-year Syrian civil war has been carried out as peace talks between the Syrian regime under President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces languish.
About 500 sick and wounded people were evacuated from four besieged Syrian towns and taken to the rebel-held area of Qalaat al-Madiq for treatment by relief agencies. About 250 people were evacuated from Zabadani and Madaya -- towns near Damascus blockaded by pro-government forces -- and about 250 others were evacuated from Foua and Kefraya -- largely pro-government towns near Aleppo blockaded by rebel forces.
The operation -- the first major rescue effort since December -- was mostly carried out by the Syrian Red Crescent with the help of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on Wednesday said the lives of the sick and wounded depended on a successful evacuation.
"We continue, obviously, to call on all parties to the conflict that medical evacuation of the sick and wounded be facilitated in a timely and systematic manner everywhere in Syria and by all parties to the conflict," Dujarric said.
About half a million people in Syria are living in besieged areas as they face the threat of disease and starvation.
Jan Egeland, chairman of a U.N. humanitarian task force in Syria, said the rescue operation had troubles but was "successfully completed" -- calling it a "breakthrough."
"They have now come to their destinations," Egeland told BBC News. "Of course their destinations are either in government-controlled areas or in opposition-controlled areas."
Peace talks in Geneva seeking a political resolution have stalled between Assad's regime and a consolidated faction of rebel forces. It is unclear whether a cease-fire that began nearly two months ago will be upheld, as rebel representatives walked out of peace talks this week citing government violations of the truce.