World News

Syria truce offers chance for aid but still needs local negotiation: U.N. aid chief

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The cessation of hostilities drawn up by Washington and Moscow offers a chance to supply aid to the half a million Syrians living under siege, but negotiations with warring parties must first be successful, the U.N. aid chief said on Monday.

Residents stand near a damaged car in the town of Darat Izza, province of Aleppo, Syria February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

“Access still requires negotiation by (the U.N. resident coordinator in Damascus) Yacoub El Hillo and others with the Syrian government, with Hezbollah, with local militia,” Stephen O’Brien said in an interview.

“The danger is you don’t negotiate with either party and a sniper takes a shot right through your head as you are driving the truck.”

The cessation of hostilities, the first of its kind since the war began in 2011, is a less formal arrangement than a ceasefire. It is meant to allow peace talks to resume and aid to reach besieged communities.

The United Nations said on Sunday together with partner aid organizations it planned to deliver life-saving aid to 154,000 Syrians in besieged areas in the coming days.

O’Brien said he was waiting to hear if trucks had gained access to Moadamiya, a Damascus suburb, on Monday.

He said further convoys were planned to Madaya and Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, which have been under siege by government forces and the villages of Foua and Kufraya in Idlib province, which he said have been besieged by rebel fighters.

The U.N. estimates there are nearly 500,000 people in around 15 besieged areas of Syria, and 4.6 million people in hard-to-reach areas. In some, starvation deaths and severe malnutrition have been reported.

But the estimate is less than half the figure put forward by a group of 19 Syrian non-governmental organizations known as the Syrian NGO Alliance (SNA).

“Over one million people are living in 46 besieged communities in Damascus, rural Damascus, Homs, Deir Ezzor, and Idlib,” said the SNA in a statement.

The statement said the U.N. should amend the classification of besieged areas.

But O’Brien, speaking on the fringes of a conference in London, organized by Bond, an umbrella group of humanitarian charities, said the U.N. should not get bogged down in “semantics”.

“The U.N. has very clear definition of what is ‘besieged’. It is not particularly productive if NGOs or the U.N. get concerned about their own definition,” he said.

“What matters is they are all ... difficult to reach, they are all suffering and it is our job to get to them.”

A senior official from Syria’s main opposition group said on Monday that the attempt to halt nearly five years of fighting was in danger of total collapse because of attacks by government forces.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the pause in the fighting was largely holding.