By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations plans to make its first air drops of food and other aid in Syria, to Deir al-Zor, an eastern city of 200,000 besieged by Islamic State militants, the chair of a U.N. humanitarian task force said on Thursday.
U.N. aid agencies do not have direct access to areas held by Islamic State, including the city, where civilians face severe food shortages and sharply deteriorating conditions.
Speaking a day after U.N. road convoys reached five areas, some besieged by government forces and others by rebels, Jan Egeland said the organization's World Food Programme (WFP) had a "concrete plan" for carrying out the Deir al-Zor drop in coming days.
"It's a complicated operation and would be in many ways the first of its kind," he told reporters in Geneva.
Egeland, who is head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, later told Reuters in Oslo: "It is either airdrops or nothing. Airdrops are a desperate measure in desperate times."
The government had given permission for access to Kafr Batna, on the outskirts of Damascus, he said, adding: "And we hope to deliver there in the next few days."
Referring to peace talks between the government and opposition, due to resume next week, Egeland said: "I hope it will also help the parties back to the negotiation table."
The WFP is planning a "high-altitude operation" to drop the life-saving assistance by parachute to the ground in Deir al-Zor
where it will be collected and distributed by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, WFP spokeswoman Bettina Luescher said.
The agency, which provides logistics support for U.N. aid operations, would use a single aircraft initially, she said, adding: "It will take a little while."
Speaking in Damascus, U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said he hoped to expand aid deliveries to other civilians under siege, citing needs in areas including rebel-held eastern Aleppo and government-besieged Daraya in Ghouta.
The U.N. estimates there are 486,700 people in around 15 besieged areas of Syria, and 4.6 million in hard-to-reach areas. In some, starvation deaths and severe malnutrition have been reported.
Many member states of the humanitarian task force on Syria had pledged support for the attempt to reach Deir al-Zor, Egeland said after chairing its second meeting.
Deir al-Zor is the main town in a province of the same name, which links Islamic State's de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa with territory controlled by the militant group in neighboring Iraq.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said requests were still pending with the government for convoys to bring aid to 50,000 people in Afrin, 50,000 in eastern Aleppo city, 75,000 in the western Aleppo countryside, and 50,000 in northern rural Aleppo province.
The international community, particularly Russia, needed to put pressure on the Assad regime to lift sieges and grant full humanitarian access, Britain's foreign minister Philip Hammond said.
Russia is Syria's main ally in the five-year war, while Western and Arab states support rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
In the past 24 hours, 114 U.N. trucks had delivered life-saving food and medical supplies to 80,000 people in five besieged areas, enough for one month, Egeland said.
These were Madaya, Zabadani and Mouadamiya al-Sham near Damascus, which are under siege by government forces, and the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province, surrounded by rebel fighters.
(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; additional reporting by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo; Kinda Makieh in Damascus and John Davison in Beirut; Editing by Katharine Houreld and John Stonestreet)