BEIRUT (AP) — An international rights group said Friday that Syria's government was obstructing aid to war-torn areas by denying aid agencies permission to use rebel-held border crossings, affecting the lives of some 3 million Syrians living in tough-to-reach places.
Human Rights Watch said Syria only allowed aid organizations to use the one border crossing with Turkey that remains in government hands near the far northern city of Qamishli. The crossing was opened to aid supplies earlier this month.
U.N. agencies generally do not cross borders without government permission, even if a government isn't in control of a certain area or crossing. In three years of conflict, opposition fighters have seized control of a series of border crossings around the country.
"It's an outrage that Syria insists that people within walking distance of the Turkish border can't get assistance by the closest and safest route," Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch said agencies needed to use rebel-held crossings with Turkey and Jordan to reach some 3 million of Syrians in opposition areas who urgently need humanitarian aid, according to figures issued by the U.N.
So far, U.N. partner groups were given permission to make three trips to rebel-held areas from Qamishli, a process that involved crossing dozens of military and rebel checkpoints and taking routes sometimes ten times as long, the group said. Houry described the situation as unworkable.
Aid groups would only need to make a 12 to 18 mile trek to reach places where Syrians desperately needed assistance if they could get government permission, Houry said. He said the government's refusal underscored a Syrian government policy "of punishing civilians in opposition-held areas."
There was no immediate comment from Syrian officials.
In Syria, rebels pressed on with a surprise offensive in the coastal province of Latakia. In the past week, opposition fighters in the area have seized a border crossing with Turkey, obtained a toehold to the Mediterranean, taken a strategic lookout point and overrun an Armenian Christian village.
Suggesting the intensity of the clashes, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 150 Syrian soldiers and Assad-loyal fighters were so far killed in the fighting. The Observatory said it based its information from medical officials in the city of Latakia, which shares the same name as the province.
The Observatory keeps a detailed running toll those killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011. The Syrian government typically does not comment on military losses.
In Geneva, the U.N.'s top human rights body voted overwhelmingly to renew its war crimes investigation in Syria for another year Friday, as diplomatic efforts to revive talks between the government and opposition remain deadlocked.
By a vote of 32-4, with 11 abstentions, the 47-nation Human Rights Council adopted the resolution that again condemns the horrific violence in Syria's three-year civil war. Russia, an adamant supporter of Assad's government, voted against it. So did China, Venezuela and Cuba.
The head of the U.N. panel investigating human rights abuses in Syria last week provided the most specific information so far about the identities of suspected criminals, saying it had prepared four confidential lists of people and groups that it has identified as responsible for crimes including hostage-taking, torture and executions.
Associated Press writer John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.