Unite to stop carnage, save lives in Syria, says U.N. aid chief

GENEVA (Reuters) - Major powers must unite to stop the carnage in Syria as the collapse of U.S.-Russian peace efforts would be a setback for United Nations operations aimed at saving lives, the top U.N. aid official told Reuters on Friday.

U.N. Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator Stephen O'Brien gestures during an interview with Reuters in Geneva, Switzerland, September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

Stephen O’Brien, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said at a minimum, a 48-hour humanitarian pause each week was needed to reach rebel-held eastern Aleppo with food and medical supplies and to evacuate the many wounded.

The United States is close to suspending talks with Russia on a ceasefire in Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday, as the Kremlin vowed to press on with an assault on the city of Aleppo.

“Any breakdown is going to set us back,” O’Brien said.

“We need to get in (to Aleppo) and we need to find that common will, but in the end, unless the Security Council is united then nothing happens,” he said.

“It behoves all of the parties to put the saving of life and the protection of civilians before everything else.”

Russia and the United States, both veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, back opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.

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Moscow and Damascus launched a campaign to recapture the rebel-held sector of Syria’s biggest city this month, abandoning a ceasefire a week after it took effect to embark on what could be the biggest battle of a nearly six-year war.

“We consider at the very minimum to get humanitarian supplies in and in sufficient quantities we need a weekly 48-hour humanitarian pause,” O’Brien said. “But on the terms I set out as the U.N.”

The Russian proposal this week for a 48-hour pause would have to comply with U.N. humanitarian principles, he said.

Security guarantees are needed from all sides to use the Castello Road or another route into eastern Aleppo, a besieged area of some 275,000 people, and time given to ensure snipers have left their posts, he said.

The World Health Organization said on Friday 338 people had been killed in the past few weeks in eastern Aleppo, including 106 children, and 846 had been wounded, including 261 children.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to announce plans soon for an independent inquiry into an attack on an aid convoy in western Aleppo on Sept. 19 that killed 20 people, O’Brien said.

The United States has blamed Russian aircraft for the attack. Moscow denies involvement.

“We have to have an urgent, swift investigation to make sure we have verified the facts... In terms of who perpetrated it, it must be subjected to evidence and properly investigated,” O’Brien said.

He conceded that it was “extraordinarily difficult” to carry out an investigation in a conflict zone.

“Any investigation which doesn’t give us access on the ground is clearly not going to be in a strong position to establish verified evidence,” he said.

O’Brien said he expected the Syrian government to respond on Friday to the U.N. proposed plan to deliver food and other goods to 960,000 people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas across Syria during October.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Janet Lawrence