UN: Only 30% of aid reaches Syrians in besieged areas
Desperately-needed aid has reached only 30% of Syrians living in besieged areas, with the total dropping to less than 10% in hard-to-reach areas this year, the UN's humanitarian chief has said.
Stephen O'Brien told the US Security Council that many of the 4.6 million Syrians in need in these areas cannot be reached because of insecurity and obstruction by combatants - even with a cease-fire in place.
Since the cessation of hostilities came into effect one month ago, Mr O'Brien said there is "a glimmer of hope", citing far fewer civilians killed and injured and progress on humanitarian access.
But he stressed that the UN and its partners are still "a long way from the sustained, unconditional and unimpeded access" required under international law and UN resolutions.
Since the beginning of the year, he said, convoys have reached 150,000 people in 11 of the 18 besieged areas in Syria.
However, Mr O'Brien said Syria's government still has not approved aid for three hard-hit areas "mere minutes' drive away from UN warehouses in Damascus" - Duma, East Harasta and Daraya.
He said: "The situation is dreadful in these areas, particularly in Daraya, where we continue to receive reports of severe shortages of food, clean water, medicines, electricity and basic commodities, with the food security and nutrition status thought to be disastrous, with even reports of people forced to eat grass."
He also said he is "deeply troubled" that more than 210,000 civilians in the northern rural Homs towns of Rastan, Talbiseh, Houla, Termallah and Taldo, as well as 15,000 people in adjacent Habarnafse and surrounding communities in rural Hama, cannot move in or out and have diminished access to food, clean water and medical care.
He strongly criticised Syrian authorities for barring or removing medical supplies from aid convoys, saying more than 80,000 medical items have been removed.
Those include treatments for child malnutrition and medicine for preventing bleeding after childbirth, which he called "scandalous".
Meanwhile, president Bashar Assad said Syria needs a national unity government that would secure the transition to a new constitution - rejecting the "transitional body" demanded by the opposition, which wants him to step down.
In an interview with Russia's state news agency Sputnik, Mr Assad said Syrian refugees will begin returning home when they see hope for improvement, adding that one of the main causes of migration is western sanctions against Syria.
Mr Assad said: "First of all, regarding the definition of the 'transitional period'; such a definition does not exist."
He said the term "political transition" means the transition from one constitution to another. "Thus, the transition period must be under the current constitution, and we will move on to the new constitution after the Syrian people vote for it."
His comments run counter to demands by the Syrian opposition for a "transitional body with full executive powers," which major powers agreed on at a Geneva conference in June 2012. That agreement remains the basis of UN-mediated talks which are slated to resume in April.
Mr Assad said a national unity government would be formed by various Syrian political forces - "opposition, independent, the current government and others".
He added: "Neither the Syrian constitution, nor the constitution of any other country in the world includes anything that is called a transitional body of power. It's illogical and unconstitutional."
Earlier, Syria's state-run news agency said Mr Assad sent a message to the UN secretary-general reiterating his readiness to cooperate with all "sincere" efforts to fight terrorism.
Mr Assad also thanked Ban Ki-moon for the UN chief's statements welcoming the Syrian army's recapture of the town of Palmyra and its world-famous archaeological site from Islamic State (IS) militants.
The recapture of Palmyra marked the latest in a series of advances by Syrian government forces and allied militias backed by Russian air strikes.
Russia's navy said it has sent the Serpukhov missile corvette, another ship armed with long-range cruise missiles, to the Mediterranean.
Russian ships have been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean to support the air campaign in Syria. Despite a partial draw-down of its forces, Russia has continued to target IS and the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.