* U.N. talks aimed at pressuring Syrian government, rebels
* EU aid chief says Iran and Russia helping aid effort
* Russia cites "major breakthrough" in Syria's attitude
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Dec 19 Iran and Russia have used their
influence on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government to
get visas for U.N. aid workers and improve access for convoys in
Syria, but much remains to be done, senior European officials
told Reuters on Thursday.
U.S. officials were more cautious, saying that "all voices"
taking part in secretive U.N. talks aimed at bringing food and
medical supplies to civilians in out-of-reach areas are
critical. There was limited progress in recent weeks, they said.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos chaired a meeting in
Geneva attended by some 20 states on Thursday to pressure the
government and opposition to allow in more food and medical
assistance, especially to people in besieged areas.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states with links to
rebel forces were urged to smooth deliveries, officials said.
"The important thing is to put pressure on the parties to
the conflict to actually open up," Claus Sorensen,
director-general of the European Union's humanitarian aid
department ECHO, told Reuters in an interview after the
Tehran and Moscow sent delegations to the talks, the second
in a month. Neither Syrian officials nor rebels were invited.
Sorensen, asked about the role of Syria's allies Iran and
Russia in the effort, told Reuters: "They are actually
addressing things, I am grateful for what they have already
done. It's not just Russia and Iran, but also Qatar and Kuwait."
He declined to give details, citing confidentiality rules.
Another European official said of Iran and Russia: "They
have sought to facilitate movement of aid convoys and help with
issues around visas. They have done some specific things and we
would like them to do more because people are dying."
The U.N. Security Council issued a presidential statement on
Oct. 2 calling for protection of civilians, demilitarisation of
schools and hospitals, and improved access for aid workers.
Nancy Lindborg, USAID assistant administrator, welcomed a
"slight shift" by Damascus in granting visas and a green light
for cross-border U.N. assistance from Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
"The Syrian regime, however, has the power to open besieged
areas for humanitarian access tomorrow simply by taking the
actions on the ground as outlined in the presidential
statement," she told a news briefing.
An estimated 250,000 Syrians are living under siege, most of
them encircled by government forces, but also including 45,000
in two northern towns besieged by rebels.
Some 9.3 million people inside Syria need humanitarian aid,
Amos said on Monday, launching a record $6.5 billion appeal for
Syria and its neighbours hosting refugees.
RUSSIA CITES BREAKTHROUGH
Russia's delegation to Thursday's meeting spoke of a "major
breakthrough" with the Syrian government paying more attention
to humanitarian needs and facilitating delivery, diplomats said.
Bureaucratic procedures had been simplified for registering
cargo, a rule requiring two ministers to approve aid shipments
had been lifted and some 50 visas were granted to aid workers in
the last few weeks, a Russian official was quoted as saying.
The Syrian government was taking "a lot of positive steps
and deserves to be encouraged", he said.
Agencies had delivered aid to hard-to-reach areas including
those controlled by rebel groups in Deraa, the Old City of Homs
and Hama province, he said. But militants had mined some
hospitals and denied roads being used for aid deliveries.
U.S. officials cited some progress in granting of visas for
aid workers but noted they must be accompanied by U.N. security.
"The U.N. security service has not gotten their visas,
still," Anne C. Richard, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State, told
the news briefing.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mike Collett-White)