By Luke Mintz
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Humanitarian agencies demanded unconditional access to all communities in Syria as Russia continued on Wednesday to withdraw its military forces from the country.
In a joint statement signed by 102 humanitarian organizations to mark the fifth anniversary of the conflict's beginning, aid agencies urged all warring parties that humanitarian access must "include access to all people in need by whatever routes necessary".
The statement, signed by the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, Oxfam and others, noted "encouraging signs of progress" in Syria, with the cessation of hostilities, allowing humanitarian agencies to "rush more food and other relief to communities desperate for help".
But access has to go beyond a temporary lifting of sieges and checkpoints, they said.
"Humanitarian access and freedom of movement of civilians in Syria has to be sustained. It has to be unconditional. And it should include access to all people in need by whatever routes necessary," the signatories wrote.
All humanitarian aid, including medical supplies, medical staff and aid workers should be given full access to all civilians in need. There was also an urgent need for a national immunization campaign for children, the agencies said.
"These are practical actions that would mean the difference between life and death," the agencies said.
"All parties to the conflict can agree on them, now. And in doing so, they can take another step to peace," they said.
More than 11 million Syrians from a population of nearly 23 million have been forced from their homes during the five-year conflict, including 4.8 million who have fled the country.
Kevin Jenkins, president of World Vision International, said there are 13.5 million people in Syria in need of assistance including six million children and many in hard to reach areas.
Benedict Dempsey, director of policy and advocacy for Mercy Corps Europe, said the call for unfettered humanitarian access to Syria is "not new", adding that four U.N. Security Council resolutions called for this.
"It is imperative that aid organizations, including Syrian organizations, have unfettered and sustained access to reach civilians in need throughout all of Syria swiftly, without restrictions and through the safest, most direct routes, be they across lines or across borders," he said.
(Reporting by Luke Mintz; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)