GENEVA (Reuters) - The new head of the Red Cross will urge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to improve humanitarian access to civilians in the war-torn country, the aid agency said on Monday as he arrived in Syria for a three-day visit.
Peter Maurer said he would also continue efforts to gain access for his agency to Syria’s detention centers - which rights groups say hold tens of thousands of people rounded up during the 17-month-old conflict, including teenagers.
“At a time when more and more civilians are being exposed to extreme violence, it is of the utmost importance that we and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent succeed in significantly scaling up our humanitarian response,” he said in a statement.
“An adequate humanitarian response is required to keep pace with needs, which have been growing exponentially,” added Maurer, who took over as president of the independent organization from Jakob Kellenberger on July 1.
Maurer and Robert Mardini, head of the agency’s operations for the Near and Middle East, arrived in the capital Damascus late on Monday, spokesman Hicham Hassan said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has 50 foreign and Syrian aid workers in Syria, but all have been confined to Damascus since late July due to heavy fighting in what it has said has become an internal armed conflict, or civil war in layman’s terms.
The agency was not able to send out any aid convoys for more than two weeks, but did manage late last week to send some food rations and other relief supplies to rural Damascus and Homs for distribution by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the ICRC said.
Maurer, a former senior Swiss diplomat, will meet Assad and senior government officials in Damascus, the statement said.
“Talks will mainly tackle the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation and the difficulties faced by the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent as they attempt to reach people affected by the armed conflict,” it said.
Syrian civilians’ living conditions are worsening dramatically, as it becomes harder to obtain food and escape fighting which caused a record death toll of 1,600 last week, aid agencies said on Friday.
Tens of thousands have been forced to flee fighting in recent weeks and increasing numbers of wounded are dying for lack of medical care or supplies, the ICRC said.
A car bomb exploded in a district on the edge of Damascus on Monday, causing casualties including women and children, state media and opposition campaigners said.
About 1.2 million people have been displaced in Syria during the conflict and a further 230,000 refugees have registered in four neighboring countries, the United Nations says.
The ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent have distributed relief items to more than 800,000 people this year, most of them displaced and staying in temporary shelters including schools, and ensured that more than one million people have enough clean water, the ICRC said.
Maurer, whose meetings are scheduled to begin on Tuesday, is also due to meet Foreign Minister Walid Moualem, Interior Minister General Mohamad Ibrahim Al Shaar and Health Minister Saad Abdel Salam Al-Nayef.
Syria opened its prisons for the first time almost exactly a year ago under a deal secured by Kellenberger on the first of his three trips there.
ICRC officials visited Damascus central prison last September but their access quickly stalled amid disagreement over the ICRC’s standard requirements, which include the right to interview prisoners in private and make follow-up visits.
After Kellenberger won fresh agreement from Syrian authorities in April, ICRC officials visited inmates at Aleppo central prison in May, but there has been no access since.
Editing by Pravin Char