UN chief sees aid as first role for Syria envoy

UNITED NATIONS Tue Feb 21, 2012 6:22pm EST

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday he was working urgently to find a special envoy for Syria who would initially have a humanitarian role but would also seek a political solution for the violence-torn country.

Ban, who was asked by the U.N. General Assembly last week to appoint the envoy, told Reuters in an interview that he hoped to select an Arab who would represent both the United Nations and the Arab League.

The U.N. chief was speaking after Russia, which voted against the assembly resolution and has vetoed Security Council action on Syria, signaled it would support the dispatch of a U.N. envoy to Syria for humanitarian purposes.

The United Nations says at least 5,400 people have died in an 11-month crackdown by Syrian security forces on protesters seeking the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian government forces killed more than 60 people on Tuesday in assaults on villages and an artillery barrage in the restive city of Homs, activists said.

Ban said that since the non-binding assembly resolution was passed on Thursday he had spoken daily by telephone with his Arab League counterpart Nabil Elaraby and would meet him in London on Wednesday, but had not yet selected the envoy.

"We identified certain persons but I am still in the process of contacting those people, their availability," he said.

Ban said he wanted to see the envoy start work "as soon as possible" but did not think that would happen by a major international meeting planned for Friday in Tunis of so-called Friends of Syria, backed by Western powers and the Arab League.

He said he had been trying to find a candidate from the region "because my understanding is that the Arabs want to have some ownership. I think that is understandable. I support that." But he said a candidate from elsewhere could be chosen if an Arab envoy could not be found.

Russia said this week it would support sending humanitarian aid to Syria. "We suggest that the Security Council members tell the U.N. Secretary-General to send a special envoy to Syria to reconcile the issues of providing safe delivery of humanitarian shipments," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Tuesday.

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said on Monday that Moscow was preparing to make proposals in the Security Council on humanitarian relief for Syria.

The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, the only international organization deploying aid workers in Syria, said on Monday it was in talks with the authorities and opposition fighters for a ceasefire to bring aid to civilians.

'THE IMMEDIATE TASK'

Ban said the new envoy would need to tackle the Syrian situation in a comprehensive way. "In addition to humanitarian (issues), one needs to discuss all political issues. But the immediate task would be humanitarian at this time," he said.

The U.N. chief said he believed a political solution was still possible in Syria and would be one of the tasks the new special envoy would have to address.

Ban discussed Syria in Vienna last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. "I urged the Russian government to demonstrate their influence over the Syrians to stop violence and allow United Nations humanitarian (workers) to have access there," he said.

Russia - a long-standing political ally of, and arms supplier to, Damascus - has so far blocked Security Council action on Syria, saying proposed resolutions fail to blame government and opposition equally for the violence. It made the same criticism of the resolution in the assembly, where there are no vetoes.

Russia said on Tuesday it would not attend the Tunis meeting because the only Syrian representatives would be from the opposition, not the government. [ID:nL5E8DL0TV]

Ban said he expected the meeting to call for an end to the violence in Syria, which he has repeatedly denounced as appalling, but it was not yet decided whether it would produce a specific initiative.

The U.N. chief declined comment on whether a referendum on a new Syrian constitution, which Damascus says it plans to hold on Sunday, would be credible. The referendum would lead to multi-party elections within 90 days.

Western officials and Syrian dissidents have dismissed the plan, saying a valid election cannot take place amid bloodshed.

Ban said that as part of a political solution, a referendum "will be also one of the political elements. But at this time there should be complete ceasefire by both sides."

(Editing by Will Dunham)

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