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Exclusive: U.N. says Syria combatants stymie aid effort

Arab League-United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrives for a news conference on the situation in Syria at the United Nations European head
Arab League-United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrives for a news conference on the situation in Syria at the United Nations European head

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations says its aid convoys cannot reach around 250,000 people in areas besieged by Syrian government forces or rebels, despite "growing needs and intensifying conflict".

The detailed assessment was included in a confidential paper that Valerie Amos, U.N. emergency relief coordinator, presented to a private, unannounced U.N. meeting in Geneva on Tuesday.

"The response is continuing but falling short, especially in besieged and hard-to-reach areas," said the report, obtained by Reuters. "Besieged communities continue to be cut off."

International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi announced on Monday that peace talks would be held on January 22, the first direct talks between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces seeking to topple him.

The U.N. document entitled "Humanitarian Situation and Response in Syria" painted a grim picture, saying there were 900 armed clashes in Syria in October compared with 500 in May.

It describes a "dangerous and difficult environment for humanitarian workers" and says 12 U.N. staff and 32 volunteers or staff of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011. Another 21 U.N. staff members remain in detention, it said, without giving details.

UNRWA, the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees, said on Tuesday that staffer Mohammad Suheil Yousef Awwad had been killed along with three passengers on November 24 when a mortar shell struck his vehicle in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

The war has driven 6.5 million people from their homes in Syria and prompted another 2.2 million to flee abroad. The United Nations has not updated its estimated death toll since July when it said the conflict had killed 100,000.

Some 9.3 million Syrians inside the country need assistance, half of them children, the document said. An estimated 575,000 people are wounded or need life-saving care.

It said the government has denied permission in the past month for U.N. convoys or missions to areas besieged by Assad's forces - including 7,000 people living in Mouadamiya and 160,000 in Eastern Ghouta, both outside Damascus, and 4,000 in Homs Old City. Some 25,000 are trapped by both sides in Yarmouk and 9,000 in Daraya, two areas just outside the capital.

Nor has access been permitted to Nubl and Zahra, two villages with a total of 45,000 people besieged by various rebel forces in the northern province of Aleppo, the document said.

In all, nine convoys were approved in November, including seven to Homs, up from a monthly three or four in recent months. "Approval procedure remains the same but changes promised," the report said, referring to the lengthy quest for government permission to send relief convoys.

TURKEY IS "RED LINE"

The United Nations is only authorized to use official Syrian channels and border crossings agreed with Damascus to import relief goods, the U.N. paper said. These include the Latakia and Tartous sea ports in northern Syria and specified border crossings with Lebanon and Jordan.

"Turkey is a red line," it said, referring to Syria's northern neighbor used as a base by some Syrian rebels.

Disclosing a new aid crossing on Syria's northeastern border with Iraq, it said: "The government of Syria (on November 20) approved transfer of supplies via Yarubiya crossing from Iraq with 48 hours notice."

Overall, red tape has hampered aid flows, with lengthy waits for Syrian approval of visas for foreign aid workers, 25 of which have been pending for more than three months, it said.

Opposition activists say Assad's forces are using siege and starvation as a military tactic in rebel-held areas around Damascus such as Mouadamiya and Ghouta, leading to cases of malnutrition and widespread hunger. Syria has accused rebels of using civilians in those areas as human shields.

In a rare show of unity, world powers called on Syria last month to allow cross-border aid deliveries and urged all combatants to agree humanitarian pauses in the fighting.

A Western diplomat, referring to the presidential statement adopted by the U.N. Security Council on October 2, said on Friday: "It was pretty specific, it did call on the regime to allow cross-border access. They are not doing that, particularly from Turkey."

"On Mouadamiya, the key issue is permission from the regime to access it. The U.N. has convoys ready to deliver aid there."

The Syrian government is obliged under international humanitarian law to facilitate humanitarian access, the diplomat said, speaking on condition he was not identified. The rebel siege of Nubl and Zahra, two pro-Assad Shi'ite villages in Aleppo province, also violates humanitarian law, he said.

A spokesman for Amos would confirm only that the unannounced talks were being held at the United Nations in Geneva and would not say which countries were attending what he called an internal meeting, or even whether Syrian officials were there.

"Valerie Amos is holding a meeting with some key member states on the humanitarian situation in Syria," Jens Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in reply to a query.

(Editing by Alistair Lyon/Mark Heinrich)

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