U.N. aid chief to visit Syria, Lebanon this week

GENEVA Mon Aug 13, 2012 5:33am EDT

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos addresses the media in Ankara March 9, 2012. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos addresses the media in Ankara March 9, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations humanitarian chief Valerie Amos will go to Syria on Tuesday to discuss ways of increasing emergency aid to civilians, but fighting must ebb before there is any real hope of gaining access to hot spots, diplomats said on Monday.

During her three-day trip, Amos will also visit Lebanon to meet Syrian families who have fled the violence and hold talks on providing support to the growing number of refugees, a U.N. statement said.

The humanitarian situation in Syria has worsened in recent weeks as fighting spread to Damascus and Aleppo. "Two million people are now estimated to have been affected by the crisis and over one million have been internally displaced," it said.

Amos' schedule of meetings was not released, but the statement said that she would meet Syrian authorities, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other aid agencies.

She went to Syria in March to seek unhindered access for aid workers to the worst-hit areas and secured an agreement from the government for a joint but limited assessment of the humanitarian situation.

But U.N. efforts to launch a major aid operation since then have been stymied by both bureaucracy and insecurity.

The escalation in the 17-month conflict between government forces and rebel fighters means there are few options for boosting relief operations unless the guns fall silent, diplomats said.

"As long as you have violence going on areas with the greatest needs, it becomes an access question. You can't do it with bullets flying," a Western diplomatic source told Reuters.

"Announcing someone has access is insignificant if the shells are still falling," he said.

WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY

Despite growing needs, Syria has refused to grant visas to Western aid workers, a U.N. official said last month.

Growing insecurity forced the world body to withdraw some expatriate aid workers from Syria in late July.

The U.N. still deploys some 36 expatriates and 1,000 Syrian aid workers in the country, while a further 3,600 Syrians work for the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees known as UNRWA.

"The distribution network is there. National staff are implementing the program. We are mobile and whenever there is a window of opportunity, we will deliver assistance," said Jens Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

U.N. agencies including the World Food Programme (WFP) have relied on the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to distribute its aid supplies, including food rations to 542,000 people in July - falling well short of the WFP target of 850,000.

Up to 3 million Syrians are likely to need food, crop and livestock aid in the next 12 months as the conflict has prevented farmers harvesting crops, the WFP and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said last week.

Many of the main drugmakers in Syria have closed down, causing severe shortages of medicines for treating chronic diseases and a rising number of casualties, the World Health Organization (WHO) said a week ago.

Hospitals or health centers have stopped functioning due to a lack of staff or supplies, while others have been damaged or taken over by fighters, the U.N. agency said.

Nearly 150,000 Syrian refugees have registered in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey since the conflict began, the U.N. refugee agency said on Friday.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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