Red Cross may not get free rein in Syria: minister

BEIRUT Wed Sep 5, 2012 1:35pm EDT

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Syrian minister said on Wednesday his country may limit access to the Red Cross, citing what he called suspicions that the international aid agency's work may be an attempt to violate Syrian sovereignty.

Ali Haidar spoke after meeting the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who is visiting Syria to try to overcome obstacles to delivering aid to civilians trapped in the bloody revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

Haidar's remarks could deepen doubts about Assad's qualified assurances made on Tuesday that the ICRC was welcome as long as its work was "independent and neutral".

"The request to facilitate their work may be an impermissible request to open doors that violate Syrian sovereignty," Haidar, who is Minister of State for National Reconciliation, told journalists outside his office.

"That is why we said the relationship with this agency will be based on providing people with humanitarian aid and not opening the doors to this agency, or any other agency, to work as they want. We have a history of bad relations with some international institutions."

Aid agencies are trying to beef up relief operations across Syria, where the ICRC says that needs have grown "exponentially" in the past few weeks due to the escalation of violence in the 17-month-old rebellion against Assad.

Clashes and continuous bombardment have cut off many civilians from basic services and life-saving supplies.

ICRC President Peter Maurer met Assad on Tuesday to discuss improving humanitarian access to Syrian civilians. The ICRC said Assad gave "positive commitments" to Maurer's requests.

Haidar's comments appeared to fall in line with forecasts of Western diplomats that Assad would not grant unfettered access to needy civilians, especially in regions sympathetic to the revolt that have been pounded by the army.

"Syria has been very unwilling to grant access and independence to the ICRC once they get in," a diplomatic source said.

(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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