GENEVA: United Nations emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos arrived in Damascus Tuesday for talks on ways to increase humanitarian aid to civilians trapped or displaced by intensifying fighting between government and rebel forces.
But in an apparent snub to the visiting U.N. humanitarian chief, Syria said that the fate of more than a million people displaced by the conflict was “not a U.N. issue,” adding that international sanctions had hurt only the innocent.
Amos held talks with a number of Syrian officials including new Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi and Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar, as the country faces an increasingly precarious humanitarian crisis.
Haidar said his office’s priority was to “stop the violence,” and that the return of displaced Syrians to their homes was “a mission of the Syrian government, not of the U.N. or international institutions,” according to state news agency SANA.
Halqi said he had faith in “Syria’s capacity to resist, to overcome the crisis and to bring about reconciliation, security and stability across the country.”
But he said Arab and Western sanctions on the regime “have only affected innocent Syrians,” according to the state news agency SANA.
Hundreds of people are fleeing Syria daily. Some are wounded as they arrive in neighboring countries while others report having been shelled or fired on in border areas, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Amos, who entered Syria Tuesday in a convoy from Lebanon, aims to “draw attention to the deteriorating humanitarian situation and the impact of the conflict on civilians caught up in the fighting,” a U.N. statement said.
Amos also held talks with General Babacar Gaye, head of the U.N. monitoring mission UNSMIS, and was due to meet the president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Abdul-Rahman Attar.
“She has a full program in Syria Wednesday and is expected in Lebanon Thursday morning,” spokesman Jens Laerke said. He added that Amos would “express her grave, grave concern” over the situation.
“She will look at the situation on the ground and discuss with the government and humanitarian partners how to scale up the response in Syria.”
The humanitarian plight has worsened over the past month as fighting has spread to the capital Damascus and the biggest city Aleppo. About 2 million people have been affected by the 17-month-old crisis and over a million are uprooted within Syria.
Amos will address ways of increasing emergency aid to civilians, but fighting must ebb before there is any real hope of gaining access to hot spots, diplomats say.
U.N. efforts to launch a significant aid operation in recent months have been stymied by Syrian bureaucracy and insecurity. U.N. distribution networks are functioning, but a U.N. humanitarian appeal of $180 million for Syria this year is only 40 percent funded so far, Laerke said.
Despite difficulties, Syrian Red Crescent volunteers are delivering aid to thousands of displaced in Aleppo and outlying rural areas, many of them staying in public buildings including schools, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
“In Aleppo the situation is extremely tense and the fighting continues in several neighborhoods,” ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said.
Displaced Syrians are pouring into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, including 10,000 who arrived in Turkey over the past four days, raising the total there to nearly 60,000, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.
Overall, the agency has registered 157,577 Syrian refugees but the true total is much higher as thousands have failed to come forward to register, some for fear of reprisals upon return to Syria, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters.