UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Access to millions of Syrians in need of help is worsening as violence increases across the war-torn country, the U.N. humanitarian chief warned Friday, and the Security Council announced it will formally ask Damascus to allow air drops to besieged areas.
Stephen O'Brien said he told a closed emergency council meeting that recent attacks "are creating new humanitarian emergencies and compounding the challenges" as access continues to be denied to some besieged locations where needs are most acute.
The 5-year-old civil war in Syria has killed some 250,000 people, displaced millions and left vast swaths of the country in ruins, enabling the Islamic State extremist group to take control of large areas of the country. A Russia- and U.S.-brokered truce began on Feb. 27, but fighting has continued to rage in many areas.
While the United Nations continues to provide aid to millions of Syrians every month, O'Brien said it needs access and "the consent of the Syrian government and all necessary security guarantees, in order to conduct air drops."
The International Syria Support Group, a coalition of world powers known as the ISSG, had called for the U.N. World Food Program to unilaterally deliver food to besieged Syrians starting June 1 if access wasn't granted by the government.
France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre, the current Security Council president, said the U.N. "will ask Damascus to authorize humanitarian air drops to reach localities for which land access was denied by the Syrian regime."
He said Syria's authorization of some aid convoys to besieged towns is "at best a drop in the ocean."
"We have not been fooled by the Syrian regime's ploy to authorize certain convoys which turn out to be empty of food or medicine or both," Delattre said. "There is a strong momentum here in the Security Council, a strong pressure on the Syrian regime, to say 'enough is enough'."
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari insisted that "humanitarian aid has never been denied by the Syrian government to any part of the country." He dismissed "baseless allegations" by some council members that the government is hindering deliveries to certain areas and insisted the council meeting was an attempt "to demonize the government" and exert "political pressure" ahead of the next round of talks aimed at ending the war.
Ja'afari, Syria's chief negotiator at the peace talks, refused to say whether Syria would authorize air drops.
The Syrian government announced late Thursday that it approved the delivery of aid to 36 "restive areas" and partial deliveries to eight other areas in June.
The United Nations had requested access to 34 locations to help 1.1 million people and Syria approved 23 requests in full and six partially, and rejected five, U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Amanda Pitt said.
O'Brien, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said the U.N. needs "full approval" of its June request.
That request included all 19 locations officially designated as besieged areas except Yarmouk, which is covered by the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, and Deir el-Zour, which is under siege by Islamic State extremists and is already receiving airdrops, Pitt said.
Of the 17 besieged locations that the U.N. sought to send aid, Pitt said Syria approved 12 requests in full and three partially — Moadamiyeh, Daraya and Douna, where it approved medical assistance, school supplies and milk for children.
Syria rejected U.N. requests to send aid to Zabadani, a mountain resort which has been besieged by government forces and Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters since last year, and Waer, the last rebel-held neighborhood in the central city of Homs, Pitt said.
O'Brien said the U.N. has been able to reach 40 percent of the 592,700 people in besieged areas. But he said only two besieged locations were reached by land in May, a sign of the potential importance of air drops, which are more difficult and costly.
WFP said it is "activating" its air delivery plan following a request from the ISSG, which is led by the U.S. and Russia. But it stressed the need for authorizations and funding first.
The U.N. food agency said late Thursday that 15 besieged areas would require helicopter operations for air drops if land access is not granted. High-altitude air drops are taking place in Deir el-Zour and would be possible in two other villages, it said.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Syria's close ally, said Moscow is looking at "all possibilities" including air drops if they are effective. But he strongly criticized unnamed council members for trying to make humanitarian access a precondition for peace negotiations, calling this "an immoral position."
Associated Press writers Michael Astor at the United Nations and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.