U.N. aid chief Amos in Syria to press for access

GENEVA Tue Aug 14, 2012 6:24pm EDT

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GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos held talks on Tuesday in Syria on ways to increase aid to civilians caught up in the escalating violence and urged the government and rebels to respect international humanitarian laws.

Every day hundreds of people flee the 17-month-old conflict between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebels determined to oust him. Some are wounded as they arrive in neighboring countries, while others report having been shelled or fired on in border areas, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Amos, who entered Syria on Tuesday in a convoy from Lebanon, visited schools hosting hundreds of displaced people in the Zahera district of Damascus, the U.N. said, adding that she was extremely concerned by what she saw and was told.

"The people I met today told me they need clean water, sanitation, medical help and food," Amos said in a statement. "They are frightened. Many have no home to return to and they desperately need more help and support."

She met Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halki.

"In that meeting (Amos) stressed the importance of the principles of impartiality and independence that underpin humanitarian work and the need for humanitarian workers to reach all those affected by the conflict," the statement said.

It added that Amos had called on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian laws, which stress the importance of protecting civilians - ordinary men, women and children - caught up in the crisis.

Amos also met with Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, and Dr. Ali Hayder, state minister for national reconciliation, in Damascus, the world body said.

Amos also held talks with General Babacar Gaye, head of the U.N. monitoring mission UNSMIS, and was due to meet the president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Dr. Abdul Rahman Attar. She will remain in Syria on Wednesday and is due to visit Lebanon on Thursday.

A U.N. spokesman said Amos would "look at the situation on the ground and discuss with the government and humanitarian partners how to scale up the response in Syria."

RED CRESCENT IN ALEPPO

The humanitarian plight has worsened over the past month as fighting has spread to the capital, Damascus, and the biggest city, Aleppo. About 2 million people have been affected by the 17-month-old crisis and more than a million have been uprooted within Syria.

Amos will address ways of increasing emergency aid to civilians, but fighting must ebb before there is any real hope of gaining access to hot spots, diplomats say.

U.N. efforts to launch a significant aid operation in recent months have been stymied by Syrian bureaucracy and insecurity.

U.N. distribution networks are functioning, but a U.N. humanitarian appeal of $180 million for Syria this year is only 40 percent funded so far, Laerke said.

Despite difficulties, Syrian Red Crescent volunteers are delivering aid to thousands displaced in Aleppo and outlying rural areas, many of them staying in public buildings including schools, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

"In Aleppo the situation is extremely tense and the fighting continues in several neighborhoods," said ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan.

Displaced Syrians are pouring into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, including 10,000 who arrived in Turkey over the past four days, raising the total there to nearly 60,000, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.

Overall, the agency has registered 157,577 Syrian refugees but the true total is much higher as thousands have failed to come forward to register, some for fear of reprisals upon their return to Syria, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters.

"Meanwhile, the security situation for refugees in the northern border areas of Lebanon has been deteriorating. Northern parts of the Wali Khalid area, where several hundred refugee families reside, is targeted by shelling from the Syrian side of the border two to three times per week," Edwards said.

Jordan has seen a marked drop in the number of Syrians crossing over, with only 283 on Saturday night against a steady average of about 400 arriving each night since July, he said.

"Refugees have reported being fired upon by artillery and small arms fire while travelling to the border."

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alessandra Rizzo)

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