Syria calls for help rebuilding health system wrecked by 'terrorists'

GENEVA Wed May 21, 2014 1:09pm EDT

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GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria's government begged the world for help on Wednesday to rebuild a healthcare system it said had been destroyed by "terrorists", despite reports by U.N. officials that Syrian government forces were largely to blame for the damage.

In a speech to ministers from World Health Organization member countries, Syrian Health Minister Saad al-Nayef said his government was "doing its utmost" to save lives.

"I appeal to all of you, I appeal for assistance to rebuild our infrastructure, to re-establish our health centers, to recreate our health system, and please, I beg you, remove the blockade, the embargo that we have suffered from and that has had a very negative impact on my country."

The war had shattered the health system, he said, killing 200 health professionals, including 11 doctors shot at point blank range. In addition, 700 health centers had been destroyed, 450 ambulances targeted and 38 hospitals put out of operation.

"Terrorist groups have caused all this damage," he said.

His assertions contradicted a U.N. independent commission of inquiry on Syria which said government forces were destroying hospitals and targeting medical personnel.

A top U.N. humanitarian official, John Ging, said this month that the government was denying medical care to the wounded by removing medical supplies from aid convoys, which he described as "an abomination, indescribably unacceptable in 2014".

"We have done our very best," Nayef told the World Health Assembly. "We have a terrorist war that has been raging for three years, and human beings are targeted as well as physical infrastructure as well as considerable damage to the environment."

He blamed terrorists for the re-emergence of polio in Syria and for cutting off water and electricity in the city of Aleppo.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has said the government shared the blame for the "flagrant disregard of international human rights and humanitarian law" in Aleppo, "intensified shelling and aerial attacks over the past six months, including through the rampant use of barrel bombs".

Aleppo's water grid was repaired dozens of times in April alone, mostly after aerial bombardment and shelling, Pillay's office said. The al-Nusra Front rebel group also deliberately cut access to water for several days in May, it said.

The World Health Organization has been careful not to blame either side for the collapse of healthcare, the targeting of health workers or the polio outbreak.

A Reuters investigation in December found Syria's government had excluded the largely rebel-held province of Deir al-Zor from a 2012 polio vaccination campaign, arguing that most residents had fled, even though hundreds of thousands remained.

Nayef blamed "defamation campaigns and the distorted views that are propagated by the media and by some so-called humanitarian organizations" for undermining the health system.

WHO chief Margaret Chan spoke at a meeting on "Health care under attack: a call for action" at the assembly on Wednesday but declined to comment on the minister's speech.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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