DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria prevented a World Food Programme vessel carrying rice for Iraqi refugees from unloading at the country’s main port on Tuesday because, the government said, its cargo failed tests.
The order to stop the 8,000 metric ton Bmc Genesis at Latakia comes at a time of heightened tension between Syria and Iraq in the wake of a U.S. raid on Syria from Iraqi territory that killed at least eight people.
Iraqi refugees — reliant on food aid distributed jointly by the WFP, a U.N. division, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — said they have stopped receiving rice, the main part of their rations.
Around 194,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria get food aid. A United Nations official in the Syrian capital confirmed that distribution of rice has stopped, but declined to say why.
A Syrian official in Latakia said the decision to stop the vessel was purely technical.
“The percentage of cracked rice in the cargo was higher than allowable under Syrian standards. The ship was ordered not to unload,” he said.
Bmc Genesis, which flies the Indian flag, arrived at Latakia last week. WFP has paid around $11,000 a day in demurrage since.
Several thousand more tons of rice imported by WFP had been sitting at the docks but not allowed to leave the Mediterranean port. A second official said that this rice was “unfit for human consumption.”
The WFP in Damascus declined to comment.
At a United Nations assistance center in the poor suburb of Douma north of Damascus hundreds of Iraqi refugees gathered to receive their bi-monthly rations of 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of rice per refugee.
“This is a calamity. Winter is coming and for us Iraqis rice is the main stable,” Ahmad Amran said.
“They said problems with shipping were behind the cut and that we will be contacted once rice comes, but when?” a second refugee said.
One outside source said the WFP did not wish to publicize the row in the hope that it would be soon solved diplomatically with the Syrian government.
Syria has repeatedly asked Iraq to help care for the estimated one million Iraqi refugees it hosts.
Relations between the two countries have been strained by U.S. and Iraqi allegations that Syria was turning a blind eye to Islamist fighters infiltrating Iraq. The October 26 raid by the United States on eastern Syria raised the stakes.
The attack killed a top smuggler of foreign fighters to al Qaeda in Iraq, a U.S. official said.
The Damascus government said the raid killed eight Syrian civilians and responded by shutting down an American school and a cultural center in Damascus. An Iraqi official said Baghdad did not accept “this kind of aggression.”
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari starts a visit to Syria later on Tuesday aimed at stabilizing ties.
Editing by Louise Ireland