GENEVA (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Monday it was still seeking a formal Syrian response to its request for urgent access to the besieged town of Qusair after a minister said aid efforts should wait until the fighting was over.
Humanitarian groups say as many as 1,500 wounded people may be trapped in Qusair by fighting between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who are backed by fighters from Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite group Hezbollah.
At least 80,000 people have lost their lives in the two-year uprising against Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
“We remain alarmed about the current situation in Qusair where food, water and medical supplies are reported to be very scarce,” ICRC spokesman Alexis Heeb said.
“We want access. We have requested this access,” he said. “When we get the green light we also have to make sure the security conditions are acceptable to send the assistance.”
He was speaking a day after Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that Syria would grant the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent access to Qusair “as soon as military operations are over”.
The assault on Qusair began two weeks ago after an ultimatum from the army and Hezbollah to evacuate civilians. Several thousand sought shelter in a nearby town and in neighboring Lebanon, the UNHCR refugee agency said, but others remain.
Assad’s soldiers and Hezbollah have since all but surrounded Qusair, which had been used by rebels as a transit point for weapons and fighters smuggled from Lebanon into Syria, and appear to hold much of the town itself.
But rebels say they have brought fighters from the northern province of Aleppo and other regions of Syria, slipping them through the army’s lines to reinforce the town.
Assad’s efforts to recapture Qusair follow a series of counter-offensives in southern Syria and east of Damascus that have consolidated his hold over central Syria ahead of planned peace talks promoted by the United States and Russia.
But he has lost control over many parts of northern and eastern Syria, relying on air power and artillery to contain the rebels in those areas. An anti-Assad monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 26 people were killed in a rocket attack overnight on Kafr Hamra in Aleppo province.
The 47-year-old president says he supports negotiations in principle, but last week dimmed prospects for a breakthrough by saying that any change to his powers must be approved in a referendum, undermining chances for political transition.
Despite Washington and Moscow’s joint push for talks, they are still divided over Syria’s civil war, which has driven 1.6 million refugees out of the country and escalated regional sectarian tensions. The United States has provided non-lethal aid to rebels, while Russia supplies Damascus with arms.
Russian and U.S. officials will meet in Geneva on Wednesday, along with the U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to assess prospects for the talks, which were originally planned for June but are likely to be pushed back to July.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Monday the United States was not doing enough to get the opposition to participate in the talks.
“In our view, the United States is definitely not working hard enough in terms of putting influence on Syrian opposition groups so that (they) will come to the international conference,” Russia’s RIA quoted Ryabkov as saying.
He said the United States “should not allow the opposition to try to issue ultimatums and impose preconditions. The main such condition ... is the demand for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s exit.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry also echoed the Syrian government account of the fighting in Qusair, saying the army and Hezbollah were carrying out a “counter-terrorist operation against militants who have been terrorizing the population”.
It said Russia had blocked a U.N. Security Council declaration on Qusair because it amounted to a demand for a unilateral ceasefire by government forces.
The European Union, which last week let lapse a ban on weapons supplies to Syrian rebels, said it was deeply concerned over the fighting in Qusair and urged both sides to ensure safe access for aid.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s office said she was appalled at the level of violence in and around the city, adding that there would be “no impunity for the perpetrators”.
The fighting in Syria has raised tensions in neighboring Lebanon, which suffered its own 1975-1990 civil war and whose society reflects the same sectarian divisions as its larger and once-dominant neighbor.
Overnight fighting in the northern city of Tripoli left six people dead and 38 wounded, security and medical sources said.
Most people in the mainly Sunni Muslim city of Tripoli support the Syrian uprising, but a small community of pro-Assad Alawites - the same minority sect as the president - live in a district overlooking the center of the city.
To the south, in the Mediterranean city of Sidon, a Sunni Muslim cleric survived an assassination attempt when gunmen fired on him as he walked to his mosque for dawn prayers, security sources said. The gunmen missed their target and fled when his guards returned fire.
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Justyna Pawlak; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Will Waterman