Aid group calls for humanitarian access in Syria

AP News
Posted: Oct 15, 2013 2:14 PM
Aid group calls for humanitarian access in Syria

BEIRUT (AP) — A general director of Doctors Without Borders called Tuesday for greater access for humanitarian aid to Syrians suffering in their country's civil war, and urged the international community to show the same urgency to help them as it did to address dismantling Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.

The Syrian conflict, which began as a largely peaceful uprising against President Bashar Assad in March 2011, has triggered a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale, killing more than 100,000 people, driving nearly 7 million more from their homes and devastating the nation's cities and towns. With the country now carved up into rebel- and regime-controlled areas, providing desperately needed food and medical aid has become a colossal — and dangerous — task.

"You have an industrial-scale war, but you have a very kind of small-scale humanitarian response," said Christopher Stokes, a general directors for Doctors Without Borders. "There is a recognition that greater humanitarian access is needed for life-saving assistance, but at the same time we don't see the mobilization."

The United Nations Security Council issued an appeal in early October for immediate access to all areas of the country to deliver humanitarian aid, including across conflict lines. Still, organizations that provide assistance continue to struggle to reach all the people who need it.

Stokes said the aid community has long been told that it's impossible to grant full access to all regions affected by the fighting, and that "one side is always blaming the other" for the impasse.

But the recent agreement to grant international inspectors unfettered access to every site linked to Syria's chemical weapons program "has shown is that it is possible, if the international political willingness is there, to grant access and free movement to aid agencies to go into these enclaves," Stokes said.

"Cease-fires could be organized as was done to allow chemical weapons inspectors in, they could be organized to allow in medical convoys," he said.

Doctors Without Borders says it currently runs six field hospitals in rebel-held areas, and supports 70 medical facilities in contested areas of the country and regions controlled by the government or the rebels.

The Syrian government has not granted the group permission to work in the country, so it is forced to bring in supplies surreptitiously — a high-risk job that Stokes said has become harder.

In the past, it would take a few days to get supplies brought in from abroad into the clinics, he said, whereas now it can take weeks. "There are more checkpoints, and it's harder and harder to get supplies in," he said.

On the ground, the conflict has shown no sign of easing, even on Tuesday as Muslims celebrated the holiday known as Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice.

In the village of Yabroud, several dozen miles north of the capital, assailants detonated explosives on the roofs of Our Lady's Church and the Church of Helena and Constantine, Syria's SANA state news agency reported.

The explosions damaged the crosses, SANA said. It said attempts to detonate more bombs outside the two churches were foiled.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group confirmed that several explosions went off, damaging the churches.

There was no claim of responsibility, though SANA blamed "terrorists," the regime's term for rebels. Assad has drawn support from Syria's ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians. The rebel movement is dominated by Sunni Muslims, who are a majority in Syria.

In regime attacks, warplanes bombed targets in the village of Latamneh in the central province of Hama, killing at least three children, the Observatory said. The government also bombed areas of the Eastern Ghouta district, near Damascus, and the southern city of Daraa.

As the fighting continued, Assad attended holiday prayers in a Damascus mosque. Syrian state TV showed him sitting cross-legged on the floor, in the front row of worshippers. Assad continues to appear in public, apparently to send a message of "business as usual" even as large parts of Syria lie in ruins.

Meanwhile, Syrian refugees marked a subdued holiday in the Zaatari tent camp in Jordan. The camp is home to more than 120,000 refugees and has turned into Jordan's fifth-largest city.

A few children bought toys from shops in the camp, as is customary during the holiday, and men attended special Eid prayers, though the refugees said there's no joy in the holiday.

"We feel bad, we feel bad because everyone here has lost his home and family members and his money," said Ibrahim Oweis, a refugee from Damascus.


Associated Press writers Maamoun Yousef in Cairo and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.