Red Cross in touch with Syrian govt on biological, chemical arms

Thu Dec 6, 2012 2:51pm EST

* Aid agency says doing "contingency planning"

* Cites daily violations of the rules of war by both sides

* "No clear frontlines" in Syria war, ICRC chief says

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Dec 6 (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been in touch with the Syrian government about both biological and chemical weapons whose use is illegal under international humanitarian law, its president said on Thursday.

The humanitarian agency is making "contingency planning" in the event that any chemical weapons are used, especially to protect its nearly 100 aid workers deployed in Syria, but remains focused on the wider needs of the civilian population.

"The Syrian government is very well aware of the ICRC's position with regard to chemical and biological weapons. It has been for quite some time, and repeatedly," ICRC President Peter Maurer told a news conference in Geneva.

His spokeswoman Carla Haddad told Reuters: "The ICRC is aware of reports of Syria's chemical weapons capabilities. The ICRC recalls that the use of biological or chemical weapons is prohibited by international law."

It had seen reports "alleging the use of chemical weapons in the country", she said, but available information was "inconclusive in relation to the reported symptoms and agents involved and in relation to the reported circumstances of use".

The independent agency would continue to review the situation and raise any concerns directly, Haddad said in reply to a query.

Western powers are whipping up fear of chemical weapons as a pretext to intervene in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad's government said on Thursday after several Western countries said they feared Assad might use poison gas.

"If something will happen around chemical weapons, I think we will also first have to look after our own staff," Regis Savioz, deputy head of ICRC operations, told reporters.

"We will be committed to doing whatever we can in the circumstances to respond to the needs and keep trying to deliver our operation as we do today. There might be huge limitations of course and these are very difficult to anticipate.

"But we prepare contingency planning in the region," Savioz said, noting constraints on imports of some material into Syria.

ICRC aid workers have been confined to Damascus in the past week due to intensified fighting around the capital which led to a partial withdrawal of U.N. foreign staff last week.

"NO CLEAR FRONT LINES"

The ICRC is in constant dialogue with both Syrian government forces and rebels about the rules of war, including the need to respect medical facilities, Maurer said.

"Obviously, we see violations of standards of conduct of hostilities every day by both sides," he said.

Speaking later to reporters, Maurer said: "We still have no clear front lines. So we still are not in a Libyan scenario where you had front lines which were moving gradually into a direction.

"If you have inconsistent patterns of fighting emerging, this makes access difficult. Using roads from one city to another has become very dangerous," he said.

During November, the ICRC distributed 24,000 household kits, each containing food for a family of five or six for a month, he said. This was down from 30,000 in Oct. and 40,000 in Sept.

There was no huge shortage of medication in Syria but it was a question of reaching the wounded and the sick, Maurer said.

"Meaning that we can much more easily import medicines into Syria, we can stock in Syria, we have trucks to deliver medicines to hospitals. But the problem that we face at the present moment is that fighting is in many places so intense that we can't reach those who most probably need it."

The ICRC's 2013 annual funding appeal, launched on Thursday, includes 51.2 million Swiss francs ($54.98 million) for Syria, a nearly three-fold increase from this year for what has become the agency's sixth largest operation worldwide.

The agency is seeking 1.17 billion Swiss francs for humanitarian operations worldwide next year.

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