Syria seizing foreign aid while patients die, medical NGO says

GENEVA Wed Nov 7, 2012 4:26pm EST

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GENEVA (Reuters) - A medical aid group said on Wednesday Syrian troops are seizing foreign aid and reselling it or channeling it towards government loyalists, putting millions of lives at risk.

"When the regime attacks one of our medical facilities, whether it's a hospital or something else, they load up everything they can carry, and they burn the rest," said Tawfik Chamaa, a Geneva-based doctor and spokesman for the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM).

"They take as much as they can, and that just depends on how many soldiers they have, but most of the time they resell it on the black market," he told a news briefing in Geneva.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), global aid agencies with a presence in Syria, said two specific allegations that Chamaa made about other foreign aid being diverted were unsubstantiated. But the ICRC said it was treating them "very seriously" and following them up with the UOSSM and Syrian authorities.

The UOSSM, as it is known by its French initials, has set up 30 field hospitals and plans to open 30 more, as well as working with local clinics and health workers, but often has to operate secretly to avoid being targeted, Chamaa said.

He said the stolen aid, as well as other items such as electrical goods looted from abandoned homes, is sold off in black market bazaars in relatively quiet towns in Syria.

Public hospitals treat only supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leaving the rest - those who do not support him against rebels waging a 19-month-old uprising - to fend for themselves, Chamaa said.

"So we are setting up these first-aid points, these secret hospitals, at our own risk, to meet the needs of the rest - the civilians who have been shelled, women and children, people who can't get to public hospitals for whatever reason, knowing that a wounded person who goes into a public hospital risks being arrested or executed, because they'll be seen as the enemy."

He said the government was intercepting large amounts of aid because many donors insisted on going via "recognized" organizations rather than clandestinely like the UOSSM, which has funding from European governments including Switzerland.

DYING IN SILENCE

The UOSSM, a volunteer grouping of about 15 medical and relief organizations and hundreds of doctors of Syrian origin, has existed on a budget of about 3 million euros ($3.9 million)since being founded in Paris in January.

Chamaa said that amount was "derisory" compared to Syria's estimated annual health needs of $3 billion.

The UOSSM was not calling for a halt to aid via official channels but wanted it to be given on condition that it went directly to the people who need it, he said. The UOSSM also wanted secure zones for health care set up across the country to allow aid to be distributed safely.

"The Syrian diaspora is sending billions out of their own pockets to support the population within Syria. But then it stops being tracked and so inside the country we don't know where the international aid is going," he said.

The price of medicines has risen tenfold on the black market but those needing care, such as pregnant women or people with chronic ailments such as diabetes or cancer, were unable to get them, he said. Millions more were at risk from hunger or cold.

"We have people dying in their homes from all these conditions, through a lack of health care, simply because they can't get out and get help, even if they can afford it. And this is not included in the statistics that you hear on a daily basis, of 150-200 dead. They are dying in silence."

As an example of aid going missing, he said 90-95 supply sets sent to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) centre in Damascus were used to benefit Syrian authorities and soldiers.

Anastasia Isyuk, an ICRC spokeswoman in Geneva, said of Chamaa's remarks: "Whenever such facts are clearly established, which does not appear to be the case now, we treat them very seriously and address (them) directly with the management of SARC and Syrian authorities."

Chamaa also said 11 trucks of food from the U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) had disappeared after crossing into northern Syria from Turkey and was last seen at a SARC depot.

But WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs denied its food aid was being diverted. WFP monitors on the ground, some in armored vehicles, were checking on distribution in most areas, she said.

"WFP has never been and never will be a tool in the hands of any government. WFP continues to provide food aid to all Syrians in need and we are sure that it goes into the right hands."

She added that the Red Crescent, a volunteer organization which distributes the WFP's supplies, was working in an impartial manner to reach people in need, no matter which part of society they represented.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Mark Heinrich)

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