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Besieged Syrian rebel-held suburb pleads for urgent help

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Oct. 20, 2013: This image made from video made from Syrian state television shows the aftermath of a truck bomb attack in Hama, Syria.AP

Residents of a besieged rebel-held suburb of Damascus issued an urgent plea on Monday for the international community to save them from starvation and constant bombardment after efforts to evacuate civilians from the area collapsed this week.

The humanitarian situation in Moadamiyeh west of the capital has been deteriorating for months as troops loyal to President Bashar Assad have blocked food and supplies from entering, activists say. Around 3,000 residents of the suburb were able to flee the area late last month during a rare, temporary cease-fire.

Aid agencies say Syrians across the country face difficulties getting food, but hunger in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, largely surrounded by government territory, is particularly acute.

In an open letter circulated by the main Western-backed opposition group, Moadamiyeh residents pleaded with the international community for help.

"Save us from death. Save us from the hell of Assad's killing machine," the letter said. "For nearly one year, the city of Muadamiyah has been under siege with no access to food, electricity, medicine, communications, and fuel."

The Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella group for the opposition, called on international organizations to establish a humanitarian corridor to allow food into the area. On Saturday, the United Nation's humanitarian chief Valerie Amos called for an "immediate pause" in clashes to allow civilians to leave.

A spokesman for the Moadamiyeh council, Qusai Zakarya, confirmed that local residents had sent the letter to the Coalition asking for help.

"We are heading toward a definite destiny: starvation," he said via Skype, with the clap of shelling and the thumping of a helicopter audible in the background. "Please, we are begging you (international organizations) to enter and distribute food. Residents are living on boiled grape leaves and olives," he said.

Activists say that for months, Syrian troops at checkpoints surrounding the battered suburb west of Damascus have not allowed food or medical supplies to enter. The siege is aimed at squeezing out rebels from the area, they say. It is not certain how many civilians remain, but activists estimate around 12,000.

Activists from the Moadamiyeh Media Center reported that six people died of starvation in September: two women and four children.

In a reprieve for some, the Syrian Red Cross and Red Crescent helped evacuate some 3,000 civilians from Moadamiyeh earlier this month during a rare cease-fire coordinated by a controversial pro-government Catholic nun, Mother Agnes Mariam al-Salib, who has lived in Syria for decades, said two activists.

Efforts to evacuate more civilians this week failed after clashes forced hundreds of women and children who had gathered at a checkpoint on the neighborhood's edge to scatter.

Another Moadamiyeh activist, Wisaam al-Ahmad, said international pressure had allowed chemical weapons inspectors to move freely through the country. He said the same pressure would force the Syrian regime to feed blockaded civilians.

The dire situation in Moadamiyeh is part of the broader humanitarian crisis triggered by Syria's civil war. The conflict, which began with largely peaceful protests in March 2011, escalated into a civil war that has now claimed the lives of more than 100,000.

The fighting has proven relentless, and on Monday Syrian opposition activists and state television said government forces killed a prominent army defector who became a rebel leader.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as well as the pro-government Al-Ikhbariya TV said Yasser al-Abboud was killed Monday during fighting in the town of Tafas in the southern province of Daraa.

Al-Abboud was among the first high-ranking Syrian army officials to defect and join the rebels fighting to topple the Assad regime. Al-Abboud once commanded the military council of the Free Syrian Army group and led a rebel brigade in Daraa.

In neighboring Lebanon, rockets fired from Syrian territory landed in the northeastern town Hermel near the border, a Lebanese official said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. One rocket landed near a Lebanese military base, while the other four crashed in nearby fields. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Syrian rebels have fired dozens of rockets at Hermel and nearby villages in retaliation for the involvement of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah in Syria's civil war. Hezbollah forces have been bolstering regime troops as the Syrian war takes on sectarian hues.