U.N. urges end to Syria's 'convoluted' aid restrictions

UNITED NATIONS Fri Mar 28, 2014 7:23pm EDT

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos addresses a news conference on the situation in Central African Republic at the United Nations in Geneva March 7, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos addresses a news conference on the situation in Central African Republic at the United Nations in Geneva March 7, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations humanitarian chief Valerie Amos on Friday urged Syria's government to end needless restrictions on access to areas where besieged Syrians are in desperate need of aid after three years of civil war.

She also voiced concern about opposition groups, especially those such as al Qaeda-linked extremist al Nusra, which has said it will not allow foreigners to operate in Syria.

"The administrative arrangements that have been put in place for clearance for our convoys are quite convoluted," Amos told Reuters in an interview after briefing the U.N. Security Council about how much-needed aid is still not reaching many in Syria.

She said different procedures applied to aid convoys involving multiple agencies and those of individual agencies, making it difficult for aid workers to deliver relief supplies. And even when the Syrian government approves deliveries, it can still be difficult to reach besieged areas.

"Even if we have the agreement of the government in Damascus, we have examples of individuals on the ground that support the government...who will prevent us from crossing certain checkpoints or prevent us from delivering aid."

While the government has primary responsibility when it comes to the delivery of aid across Syria, Amos said opposition groups also played a role in making the delivery of aid a difficult and complicated process.

Amos said there was "a proliferation of groups operating" in Syria that range from moderate to extremist al Qaeda-linked. Some are "tiny but influential in terms their location."

She cited the example of the United Nations' long negotiations on accessing the Old City of Homs to deliver aid and evacuate civilians. The United Nations had to negotiate with 33 different opposition groups, 11 of them very small.

She also said that opening up two border crossings on the Syrian border with Turkey could potentially lead to access to 1.1 million people in need of humanitarian relief.

'ARBITRARY AND UNJUSTIFIED'

A month after the 15-member U.N. Security Council achieved rare consensus to approve a resolution demanding rapid, safe and unhindered aid access in Syria, including across borders, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said in a new report this week that the situation "remains extremely challenging.

His report, which was delivered to council members on Sunday but has not been officially released, criticized both the government and rebels for hindering access to civilians.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari criticized Ban's report for not elaborating on the government's achievements.

"Thousands of food baskets were distributed everywhere in Syria, mainly speaking in these restive areas, but also in the Palestinian refugees camp in the countryside of Damascus," he told reporters, adding that reports accusing the government of killing its own people were false.

The United States said Ban's report left no doubt that the government shouldered most of the blame for the situation.

"Amos was very clear and is always very clear - that 3.5 million people can be reached just ... by giving consent, literally with a stroke of a pen, allowing the UN to use border checkpoints, all of them," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told reporters after Amos' closed-door briefing.

Power added that, "The Assad regime's predations and bureaucratic stalling contrast with the moderate opposition's avowal to help."

Amos did not explicitly say that the government shoulders the bulk of the blame, but she noted that "it's very hard to say that there is an equivalence between the government and these different (opposition) groups on the ground."

"We all look to governments ... to be the ones that are leading the effort," Amos added.

British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said Amos described Syrian government decisions being "often arbitrary and unjustified."

"The regime's use of barrel bombs continues unabated, with devastating impact on civilians, with the daily death toll now at more than 200," Lyall Grant added.

He and Power both said they were considering possible steps after Ban's report and Amos' briefing but offered no specifics.

Several council diplomats told Reuters it was highly unlikely that Russia would agree to declare Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government in non-compliance with the February 22 resolution, a move that could trigger new calls for sanctions.

Russia, supported by China, has shielded its ally Syria on the Security Council during the conflict. The two had previously vetoed three resolutions that would have condemned Syria's government and threatened it with possible sanctions.

Some 9.3 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance, while another 2.6 million have fled the three-year civil war, sparked in March 2011 by a revolt against Assad. Over 140,000 people are believed to have been killed in the war.

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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