EU's Syria envoy says bloc is not shirking earthquake aid

Aftermath of an earthquake, in rebel-held town of Jandaris
View shows damaged and collapsed buildings in the aftermath of an earthquake, in rebel-held town of Jandaris, Syria February 11, 2023. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

ADANA, Turkey Feb 12 (Reuters) - The European Union's envoy to Syria said early on Sunday that it was not fair to accuse the group of failing to provide enough help to Syrians following the earthquake that devastated large parts of Syria and Turkey last week.

Dan Stoenescu told Reuters the bloc and its member states have gathered more than 50 million euros to provide aid and back rescue missions and first aid in both government-held and rebel-controlled parts of Syria.

"It is absolutely unfair to be accused of not providing aid, when actually we have constantly been doing exactly that for over a decade and we are doing so much more even during the earthquake crisis," Stoenescu said in written comments.

More than 3,500 people died in the earthquake in Syria, where a 12-year conflict had already left hundreds of thousands dead and forced millions into displacement within the country and beyond its borders.

The war carved the country into various competing zones of control, making aid provision difficult even before Monday's 7.8 magnitude quake.

The Syrian government, which is under Western sanctions, has appealed for U.N. aid while saying all assistance must be done in coordination with Damascus and delivered from within Syria, not across the Turkish border into rebel areas.

Some observers have accused Damascus of directing aid towards loyalist areas. Syrian authorities did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on Sunday.

A 30-tonne shipment of humanitarian aid from the Italian government - including four ambulances and 13 pallets of medical equipment - landed in Beirut on Saturday en route to Damascus in the first European earthquake relief to Syria.

Stoenescu said the EU was encouraging member states to provide help and that sanctions "do not impede the delivery of humanitarian aid."

But he said the EU had foreseen that humanitarian partners may request exemptions "for humanitarian purposes and is willing to clarify further these possibilities."

"The more the sanctions narrative is perpetrated, the more honest actors that want to help are inhibited and afraid to get involved in the international humanitarian efforts," he said.

The EU was seeking "sufficient safeguards" to ensure that help provided would reach vulnerable people, Stoenescu said, adding the Syrian government had a "record of aid diversion."

"We call the authorities in Damascus not to politicise the humanitarian aid delivery, and to engage in good faith with all humanitarian partners and UN agencies to help people," he said.

Reporting by Maya Gebeily; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and William Mallard

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