Syria PM makes rare visit to Aleppo and promises aid

BEIRUT Mon Dec 17, 2012 1:16pm EST

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BEIRUT Dec 17 (Reuters) - Syria's prime minister made a rare visit to the war-torn city of Aleppo on Monday and pledged $4 million in aid, a state television station said.

The TV station offered no photos or film of the visit, the first in months by a senior figure in the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The visit by Wael al-Halki, who took office after his predecessor Riad Hijab defected earlier this year, may be seen as an attempt to show the Syrian government still has a grasp on the country's's largest city.

Rebels control many districts in Aleppo since launching a campaign this summer, and most of the countryside surrounding the city is now in the hands of rebels pressing their 21-month-old revolt against Assad.

Civilians in these areas have been facing huge hardship, with a constant shortage of food and fuel. Rebels and the government have traded blame for the lack of help to opposition-held areas, where clashes rage regularly and the army bombs with artillery and war planes.

Syria TV quoted Halki offering 200 million Syrian lira ($2.6 million) in humanitarian aid and another 100 million lira ($1.3 million) for "basic necessities".

"There is a surplus in food supplies and fuel supplies are also ready for Aleppo city but the problem is getting it to residents because of the sabotage by armed terrorist groups that have destroyed many bakeries and roads in the Aleppo countryside," Syria TV quoted him as saying.

Syrian officials regularly call the rebels "terrorists" and assert that they are steered from abroad.

No mention was made of the areas in Aleppo that Halki toured. Despite his high rank, the prime minister plays a minor role in Syria's autocratic government, led by the Assad family for four decades.

Opposition activists say Assad's forces have blocked the entrance of fuel and food into rebel-held areas, as a form of collective punishment. Little aid has arrived from international aid groups.

The International Committee for the Red Crescent and the World Food Program both use the local Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) to distribute aid.

But SARC has been unable to operate in areas of heavy fighting. It also risks attack in rebel-held areas, as many in the opposition believe the group, whose leaders have ties to the government, is helping the army. SARC says it is committed to neutrality.

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