U.N. starts first aid airlifts to Syria from Iraq as cold grips
BAGHDAD Dec 15 (Reuters) - The United Nations sent its first delivery of humanitarian aid by air to Syria from Iraq on Sunday and said it plans to deliver more food and winter supplies to the mainly Kurdish northeast in the next 12 days.
The first cargo plane carrying food took off from Arbil in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region and will make a one-hour flight to Hassakeh in Syria.
The food supplies over the next 12 days should be able to feed more than 6,000 Syrian families for the rest of December, the U.N.'s World Food Programme said. This is the third winter since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.
The airlifts were delayed from last week because of a storm which swept across Syria and Lebanon, bringing with it high winds and freezing temperatures. Cold, dry winds whipped the Tarmac at Arbil airport before takeoff.
"This wave of extreme cold led to deteriorating conditions for people in the city of Qamishli and other places in Syria," Iyad Nuaman, WFP regional coordinator, told Reuters by telephone from Arbil.
"Regions of eastern Syria are suffering more than others because they are far from the capital and there were problems with the delivery of food supplies," he said.
Both governments gave permission for the aid flights which will also include supplies of non-food items such as blankets, clothes and medicine in the coming days.
The 12-day airlift, involving various U.N. agencies, will include 400 tons of food and 196 kg of medical kits.
U.N. agencies have ferried limited aid supplies into Syria from Iraq and Lebanon, but not via Turkey because of objections from President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Syria gave permission several weeks ago for the cross-border U.N. operation, which had initially envisaged truck convoys, which would have been cheaper.
However, the U.N. found negotiating with different factions on the ground in Syria had become increasingly complicated and resorted to the direct airlift instead.
The bad weather has increased the needs of internally displaced Syrians and supplies in warehouses are running low, said Eliana Naba'a, spokeswoman for the U.N's Iraq mission.
"We are launching this airlift from Iraq because its much easier compared to other countries in the region," she said, noting the short flight time.
The U.N. said last week that the number of vulnerable people in the Hassakeh province is estimated at 50,000-60,000 and that the population has been out of reach for a long time.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Syria, which began with peaceful protests against Assad and has descended into civil war.
The conflict has stoked sectarian tensions across the Middle East and triggered a humanitarian crisis. The U.N.'s refugee agency says about 6.5 million people have fled their homes within Syria and 2.3 million sought refuge abroad. (Additional reporting by Reuters Television, Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Janet Lawrence)