GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations has been forced to suspend planned humanitarian operations in Syria under a ceasefire agreement due to a “surge of military activity”, a spokeswoman for U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said on Friday.
Aid activities including evacuations of wounded had been planned in Zabadani, a town surrounded by pro-government forces near the Lebanon border, and in rebel-besieged Shi’ite villages in the northwestern province of Idlib in a deal agreed with U.N. help and backed by Iran and Turkey.
“The U.N. calls on all concerned parties to fulfill their responsibilities in the protection of civilians and reach the necessary understandings in order to implement this agreement as soon as possible,” De Mistura’s office said in a statement that made no explicit reference to Russia’s bombing in Syria for a third day.
A source with knowledge of the ceasefire talks said Russia’s bombing campaign put the deal in jeopardy, however, adding that breaches of the ceasefire were likely to upset Iran.
The source said the airstrikes may have targeted areas within the ceasefire zone and also hit the Homs-Hama highway, forcing the withdrawal of a U.N. team who were due to monitor the truce.
“There are now very, very serious doubts about whether the deal will happen,” the source said.
Iran, whose Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had pushed for the deal to evacuate some 10,000 civilians from the besieged villages, is likely to be upset if the ceasefire is breached, the source said.
“Khamenei gave a direct order to the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) to save the civilian population of Kufreya and Foua,” the source said, referring to the Shi’ite villages in Idlib.
Dibeh Fakhr, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, said attempts to evacuate the wounded had been suspended but might resume in coming days if the situation on the ground allowed.
The source with knowledge of the ceasefire talks said Russia’s escalation had also prompted Syrian opposition armed groups to put off an announcement that they were prepared to join De Mistura’s plan for four Syrian “working groups” in Geneva.
The working groups, which were proposed to get a wide variety of Syrian parties discussing a shared blueprint for post-war Syria, were supposed to start work later this month.
But De Mistura’s announcement of their launch was also likely to have been delayed by Russia’s actions, the source said.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles; Editing by Hugh Lawson