Syrian government blocking help to the neediest - UN chief
The United Nations' humanitarian chief has accused the Syrian government of blocking aid to hundreds of thousands of the country's neediest people despite a ceasefire that has given "a glimmer of hope" that the conflict might be coming to an end.
UN under-secretary general Stephen O'Brien told the world body's Security Council that a two-step approval process agreed by the government for humanitarian convoys to cross conflict lines to reach besieged and remote areas "has become, in practice, a 10-step process".
Despite the December 30 ceasefire and a humanitarian task force whose sole purpose was to ensure access, "we continue to be blocked at every turn, by lack of approvals at central and local levels, disagreements on access routes, and violation of agreed procedures at checkpoints by parties to the conflict", the former Conservative MP for Eddisbury said.
Mr O'Brien said the result was that only one convoy delivered aid to 6,000 people in December, when the UN asked for approval to help 930,250 people, and he criticised the removal of more than 23,000 medical items from the lorries that did get through.
So far in January, he said, the situation was not much better, with just a single convoy reaching 40,000 people.
Mr O'Brien said the Syrian government responded to the UN's monthly convoy plans within the agreed seven working days, "b ut subsequent administrative delays on the part of the government, including in the approval of facilitation letters, approval by local governors and security committees, as well as broader restrictions by all parties continue to hamper our efforts".
Mr O'Brien urged council members with influence to pressure the Syrian government to allow aid deliveries to all besieged and hard-to-reach areas.
In a statement, the council urged all parties "to intensify efforts to ensure sustained and unhindered humanitarian access".
As a result of the evacuation of rebel-held eastern Aleppo and a comprehensive UN review, Mr O'Brien said the number of besieged areas had been reduced from 16 to 13, and the number of people estimated to be living in those areas had dropped from 974,080 to 643,780.
He singled out four areas where humanitarian action "remains greatly needed and, sadly, often contested".
Humanitarian needs in Aleppo "continue to be staggering", Mr O'Brien said, with at least 160,000 people temporarily displaced.
In eastern Aleppo, he said more than 65,000 people had been registered as having returned or stayed, most living in damaged houses.
He added that the UN was following up on reports that "stockpiles of humanitarian supplies" had been found in east Aleppo since late December when government forces and their allies took control.
Mr O'Brien also expressed concern for the safety of 93,500 people in the besieged western side of Deir el-Zour, following reports of attacks by fighters from the Islamic State extremist group, and for more than 400,000 people in need of aid in Raqqa, the IS headquarters.
The UN is also deeply troubled at the cut-off of the main water supply to some 5.5 million people in Damascus, and Mr O'Brien said if this was deliberate "those responsible may have committed a war crime".
He warned that the humanitarian crisis would not end until the conflict, now in its sixth year, ended, and urged the council to rally behind UN-led negotiations to find a political solution.
The council also called for stepped-up efforts to consolidate the ceasefire and reiterated support for a political solution.