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Sources say that in Yarmouk Camp, just south of Damascus, more than 80 people have died since the beginning of the year, most of them children. Editor’s note: This slideshow contains images that some viewers may find disturbing.

By Ann Curry, NBC News National and International Correspondent

In a rare moment of cooperation between the Syrian government and rebel forces, aid agencies say hundreds of people were allowed to evacuate over the weekend from a suburb of Damascus where the nearly three-year-old civil war has yielded yet another horror: Hunger so severe that a significant number of people are said to be now starving to death.

The evacuation from Yarmouk Camp, a rebel-held suburb just south of Damascus, comes after 89 people, most of them children and elderly people, have died of malnutrition-related diseases since January 1, according to Jamal Hammad, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent. He said his count only includes cases with confirmed death certificates.  See Ann Curry’s interview on: Starvation, deaths plague Syria camp.

In a suburb of Damascus, the nearly three-year-old civil war in Syria has yielded yet another horror: Hunger so severe that a significant number of people are said to be now starving to death.

Children under the age of one and elderly people over 65 account for 60 percent of the deaths, he said.

Yarmouk Camp is a neighborhood of mostly Palestinians who fled to Syria in the 1950s and are now caught in the crossfire of the civil war.  The United Nations estimates that some 20,000 people remain there, virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

Hammad is one of multiple credible sources reached inside Yarmouk, including three relief workers and two photographers, who all said hunger is so severe there that people are dying in significant numbers. (The England-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said more than 80 people have died in recent months from both starvation and a lack of medical care.)

Hammad’s wife Amal Ahmad, a trained x-ray technician who is also a relief worker, said that she is concerned that the rate of hunger-related deaths could soon spike, as many people are now in a weakened state. She said “many women have suffered miscarriages or died in childbirth due to extreme malnourishment.”  Ahmad was one of several sources who described the situation as nearing a tipping point.

Some sources asked that their last names not be used out of fear for their personal safety, including Osama, a 26-year-old former graduate student in economics who is also a local relief worker.  He said that in Yarmouk, people are eating cats, grass and cactus they are so hungry.

Snipers have shot people dead while they are gathering grass to eat, he said. Ahmad said these dead are being called “martyrs of the grass” in Yarmouk.

The situation has become so desperate, Osama said, that people are now drawing blood in fights over food, and he’s afraid of what may come next. Asked to name his greatest fear, he said, “Maybe the people can eat each other. I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t imagine.  Before, no one can imagine that a family can just cook a cat. Now it’s happened.”

Hammad corroborated Osama’s account about people eating cats. He said people have also eaten dogs.

In recent days, a small amount of food aid has trickled in through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Ahmad said this was the first actual food she and many she knows have eaten in at least four months. She said many people, especially children, had problems digesting the food since their stomachs are completely empty, and they vomited their first meals.

She said the few families who were able to get food aid are sharing it with families who were not as lucky, but the overwhelming majority of people in Yarmouk did not get any aid.

Osama said some people are down to consuming only water. “Sometimes we do this…drink some water with some sugar or some salt and go back to sleep. But when you go to the street you will find maybe the people next door…they’re dead,” he said.

Photographs of emaciated children have emerged across the Internet in recent days, purportedly from Yarmouk. Sources confirm that photos obtained by NBC News are of children in Yarmouk, and were taken in recent days and weeks.

NBC contacted two photographers who also confirmed they are seeing children and elderly people terribly weakened by hunger. One photographer named Niraz took most of the photos shown in this report (see images above), including one of two young children wrapped in white, lying next to one another on a blue cloth. Niraz identified them as 4-month-old Leila Khaled and 25-day-old Rahaf. Osama said those two children died on Tuesday, and that children die in Yarmouk every day now.

An analysis of the photos by NBC News has determined there to be no obvious signs of digital manipulation.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said that while he cannot confirm the number of starvation-related deaths, there are “widespread reports of malnutrition” including children with rickets and anemia. He also said, “people, including infants, are eating animal feed.”

Gunness said the aid allowed into Yarmouk so far is “shockingly inadequate to meet the dire needs of these civilians,” and called on Syrian authorities and all parties in the conflict to facilitate the rapid access of substantial quantities of food to civilians in Yarmouk.

A representative at the Syrian Consulate in New York City declined to comment on the situation, including why substantial quantities of food are being blocked from getting into Yarmouk.

Relief worker Osama estimated that there are about five dozen rebel fighters inside Yarmouk among the thousands of civilians.

When asked if there is any pressure on these fighters to stop firing at the Syrian Army in an effort to get more food into the area, Osama said, “Yes, people make pressure but there is no reason to let children starve to death, no reason to siege all of this area.”

Children cry “all the time, not just the night, all of the time,” Osama said. “You can hear their moms also. Most families just spend their day just looking for anything to eat.”

Asked what Yarmouk needs most, he said, “We need to save the children inside Yarmouk. Maybe send them out of Syria…our families will be happy, believe me. Just save the children.”

Ruzana Ibragimova is the subject of a search by Russian authorities in connection with terror threats against the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

By Richard Engel, Albina Kovalyova and Erin McClam, NBC News

MOSCOW — Russian security services may be looking for as many as four “black widows” dispatched to carry out terrorist attacks related to the Winter Olympics, including at least one woman believed to be in or near the Olympic city of Sochi, U.S. and Russian sources told NBC News on Monday.

Wanted posters distributed in Sochi, where the games open Feb. 7, describe at least one suspected terrorist — Ruzana Ibragimova, also known as Salima, the 22-year-old widow of an Islamic militant killed by Russian security forces last year.

The notices describe her as having a limp in her right leg, a left arm that does not bend at the elbow and a 4-inch scar on her cheek.

In a video, recorded before their deaths, that has recently surfaced, two suicide bombers suspected of a deadly attack on a Volgograd train station threaten a “surprise” during the Olympics at Sochi.

The notices say that Russian security officials have been informed of her possible departure from Dagestan, a Russian republic in the restive Caucasus area, earlier this month, and that she may be used for an attack inside the Olympic zone.

Terrorists threaten ‘surprise’ at Olympics

Militant groups in the Caucasus are known to use “black widows,” female terrorists so called because some seek to avenge the deaths of their husbands. They considered by security experts to be harder to pick out in a crowd because they do not fit the stereotype of an Islamic militant and because they can easily alter their appearance with clothing and makeup.

The disclosure Monday added to terror fears as the games approach. On Sunday, a video surfaced in which two men from an Islamist militant group threatened to attack the Olympics, warning that “a surprise” is in store for President Vladimir Putin and tourists attending the games.

The men claim responsibility in the video for two suicide bombings last month in the Russian city of Volgograd that killed 34 people. The Olympic torch passed through Volgograd on Monday on its way to Sochi, where the games open Feb. 7.

“That which we will do, that which we have done, is only a little example, a little step,” one the men, from the Islamist organization Anars Al Sunna, says in the hour-long video, released Sunday.

“We’ll have a surprise package for you,” one of them says, addressing Russian officials. “And those tourists that will come to you, for them, too, we have a surprise.”

With less than three weeks to go before the opening ceremony, security in Sochi is already tighter than at most airports, and Putin has vowed to take every step necessary to protect the Olympics.

The video surfaced Sunday as American officials expressed frustration at what they called a lack of cooperation from Russian security officials.

“They’ve now moved 30,000 armed troops to the region. That tells you their level of concern is great,” Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on the CNN program “State of the Union.”

“But we don’t seem to be getting all of the information we need to protect our athletes in the games. I think this needs to change, and it should change soon.”

Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, said on the same program: “I would not go, and I don’t think I would send my family.”

Russia has promised to protect Sochi within a “ring of steel.” The city is packed with metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs and explosive detectors. But groups threatening the Olympics say they will target not just the host city but other areas of Russia.

“I think the threats are real,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I think it’s more likely that the attacks would probably happen outside the perimeter, more soft targets, transportation modes, if you will.”

The Obama administration has asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for possible U.S. military assistance for Americans inside Sochi in the event of a terror attack, senior U.S. officials told NBC News on Monday.

The military’s European Command has worked up a plan that would rely on military assets already in place — moving warships into the Black Sea, where they routinely operate, and putting transport planes on standby at military bases in Europe.

The plan has not yet been submitted to the State Department or Pentagon, the officials said.

Any U.S. involvement in a military operation in Sochi would require a request from the Russian government to the State Department, then an order from President Barack Obama.

Senior U.S. military officials Monday suggested the likelihood that Putin would ask the U.S. for military help was zero.

The men in the video claim to be from Dagestan, about 1,000 miles from Sochi. Militants see an attack on the Olympics as a chance to humiliate Putin.

The men in the video appear to construct explosive devices and document, step by step, how they planned the Volgograd attacks. They say in a part of the recording directed at Russian officials that they “will continue to kill you and your soldiers.”

“This is for all the Muslim blood that is shed every day around the world, be it in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, all around the world,” they said. “This will be our revenge.”

Putin said over the weekend that he “will try to make sure that the security measures taken aren’t too intrusive or visible and that they won’t put pressure on the athletes, guests and journalists.”

Image: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

By Hasani Gittens and Catherine Chomiak, NBC NEWS

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday rescinded an offer for Iran to attend Syria peace negotiations after Tehran said it didn’t support the June 2012 political transition deal that is the basis for the talks.

In a brief statement by his spokesman — and under huge pressure from the U.S. — Ban withdrew the invitation, saying he was “deeply disappointed” by public statements today from Iran.

“He (Ban) continues to urge Iran to join the global consensus behind the Geneva communiqué,” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said. “Given that it has chosen to remain outside that basic understanding, (Ban) has decided that the one-day Montreux gathering will proceed without Iran’s participation.”

Ban said earlier that Iran’s public statement that it did not support the 2012 Geneva deal calling for a transitional government for Syria was “not consistent” with assurances he had been given by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Str / AP

Mourners and Sunni gunmen chant slogans against Iraq’s Shiite-led government during the funeral of a man killed when clashes erupted between al Qaeda gunmen and Iraqi army soldiers on Friday in Fallujah.

By F. Brinley Bruton, Staff Writer, NBC News

The United States will help Iraq fight an al Qaeda-linked group that seized the city of Fallujah in the west of the country, but will not send American troops, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday.

“We will stand with the government of Iraq and with others who will push back against their efforts to destabilize,” Kerry told journalists as he left Jerusalem for Jordan and Saudi Arabia. “We are going to do everything that is possible. I will not go into the details.”

The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which took control of Fallujah and Ramadi over last week, is one of the strongest rebel groups in Syria and has imposed a strict version of Islamic law in territories it holds.

U.S. intelligence officials said Friday the situation in western Iraq was “extremely dire” after the radical forces raised their flag in the town of Fallujah — site of two of the bloodiest battles during the Iraq war — and gained control of the city.

Kerry admitted that the U.S. was “very, very concerned” by the fighting, and called ISIL “the most dangerous players in that region.”

The ISIL claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing in in Lebanon on Saturday.

Reuters contributed to this report. 


Al Qaeda fighters take over parts of two Iraq cities

Keir Simmons / NBC News

Farah Audi holds up the Syrian flag outside of a Damascus school.

By Keir Simmons, Foreign Correspondent, NBC News

DAMASCUS — In a classroom here, a Syrian boy spoke of seeing a man being shot dead. The boy is just 10 years old. He smiled as he recounted what happened, sitting behind a wooden desk.

For the children of Syria, his story is nothing extraordinary.

At break time, boys spilled out into the school yard, kicking and punching each other, putting friends in head locks and tumbling to the ground. One small 7-year-old boy looked bewildered as a school yard thug twice his size turned on him.

The scenes are no different from any other elementary school — except in one respect: Beyond these school walls, the sound of artillery can be heard. These boys play-fight during school breaks while their fathers fight a war that has ripped Syria apart for more than two years. The girls look on bemused.

“Men came came and attacked us,” 10-year-old Jwatat said, back in the classroom. “In front of my home, armed men attacked. They killed a man in front of us with a pistol. I was scared, so scared. I still think about it before I go to sleep at night.”

He added: “We thought the armed men would kill us, because they killed a man without reason.”

Of the attackers, Jwatat said, “I hate them.” He called them “terrorists.”

Jwatat’s family here fled from Jobar on the outskirts of Damascus. He and the other 10- and 11-year-old children in his group are internally displaced, which means they left their homes but not their country.

“The terrorists, they came to our area, they caused chaos,” said one girl, Alen. Next to her sat Aya, whose family escaped their home village two years ago.

“We were very scared from the terrorists,” she said.

These children are barely old enough to know what terrorism means. Yet each of them used the word — perhaps learned at home — to describe the fighters trying to overthrow Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad.

The school is government-run, and many of the pupils are from Assad’s religious sect, the Alawites.

Out in the school yard, the children lined up in regimented rows. At the front, 9-year-old Farah Audi held up a Syrian flag. Her first name means “happiness.” The 800 students saluted and sang the Syrian national anthem. In Assad’s country, patriotism begins at a young age.

But back in the classrooms, the children learn English.

“How are you, I’d like to see you,” they recited. Syria’s children learn the language of the West while saluting the president. Across Syria, many children don’t receive an education at all. One report claims more than 11,000 children have been killed in the conflict.

On Thursday, a report from nonprofit organization Amnesty International said one extremist group opposed to Assad’s regime was torturing people and imprisoning children as young as 8. And in another report, the United Nations condemned Assad’s forces for “widespread violations” of human rights. Both sides in the bloody ongoing conflict have become increasingly ruthless.

“We heard rockets and we were very scared, we went to my aunt’s house and heard even more noises,” says Shaed, 11. “We went to the market and it was filled with people running so we hid in our friends’ home. After two days, we got back to our house, picked up the car and fled,” he added.

The children’s teacher, Houda Essa, said they try to counter the education in war these children receive every day.

“We teach them that we are against war,” she said, “and that we want all of our country in peace.”

It’s a feeling echoed by her students — who all put up their hands when asked if they have nightmares.

When asked whether they want to see peace in Syria, every child threw up both hands with enthusiasm.


Hungry, homeless, helpless: Syria’s children know too much about war