By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Building on a fragile unity, the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday urged Syria's government to allow cross-border aid deliveries and called on combatants in the country's war to agree humanitarian pauses in fighting and aid convoy routes.
Millions of people in Syria are in desperate need of help as a result of a 2-1/2-year civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, but aid has slowed to a trickle because of violence and excessive red tape.
After overcoming a long diplomatic deadlock between Russia and Western powers last week to pass a resolution to rid Syria of chemical weapons, the 15-member Security Council finally agreed on Wednesday to a non-binding statement aimed at boosting aid access.
U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos said that if the statement's requests were fully implemented then humanitarian groups could help about two million people in Syria who have been unreachable for many months.
"Our task now is to turn these strong words into meaningful action for the children, women and men who continue to be the victims of the brutality and violence," she told reporters.
The Security Council statement urges Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's authorities to "take immediate steps to facilitate the expansion of humanitarian relief operations, and lift bureaucratic impediments and other obstacles."
This includes "promptly facilitating safe and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need, through the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries."
The opposition Syrian National Coalition welcomed the Security Council statement and called on the government to allow aid to be delivered.
Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, said the government would study the council statement before responding.
Only 12 international aid groups are approved by the Syrian government and convoys of aid trucks struggle to meet demand, delayed by having to negotiate dozens of government and opposition checkpoints, U.N. officials say.
The Security Council statement, drafted by Australia and Luxembourg, was based on a wish list Amos sent the council last month. Amos has said some cross-border aid deliveries were already being made from Lebanon.
A senior council diplomat said that the statement was unlikely to make a huge difference to aid access instantly, but if it "helps to get a bit more aid through than that will be well worth having."
"I hope it will strengthen the ability of Valerie Amos and the humanitarian agencies to break through a lot of the bureaucratic hurdles they have been facing in Damascus and it puts the full weight of the Security Council behind her demands," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
HUMANITARIAN PAUSES IN FIGHTING
The statement also urges all parties to "immediately demilitarize medical facilities, schools and water stations, refrain from targeting civilian objects, and agree on the modalities to implement humanitarian pauses, as well as key routes to enable promptly ... the safe and unhindered passage of humanitarian convoys."
The council has been discussing how to respond to the Syrian aid crisis for months. Western members recently decided to pursue a statement on the issue rather than a resolution to avoid a likely showdown with Russia and China, diplomats said.
"The need here was speed," Australian U.N. Ambassador Gary Quinlan told reporters. "We all know that resolutions take a while to negotiate because they are legally binding ... It is possible for a statement to become a resolution over time."
Amos said she would continue to press the Security Council for a resolution on aid access.
Russia, a close ally of Assad, and China have vetoed three Security Council resolutions since October 2011 that would have condemned the government and threatened it with sanctions.
Some diplomats had warned that Russia would be wary of backing a call for cross-border aid access as Assad's government was concerned this could make it easier for weapons to be smuggled to opposition forces.
Moscow agreed to the statement because it simply "urges" the government to allow aid deliveries across borders from neighboring countries rather than "demands," another senior U.N. diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Vicki Allen and David Brunnstrom)