UN issues distress call over war-affected Syrians

KUWAIT CITY (TIP): UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon warned on January 15 that nearly half of Syria’s population needs urgent humanitarian help, as aid groups urged access for relief delivery to civilians trapped by the fighting. Ban’s warning came in an address to a oneday donors’ conference in Kuwait City aimed at raising $6.5 billion in aid for war-affected Syrians. The Second International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria comes a week before the so-called Geneva II peace conference, which is aimed at ending the conflict that has killed 130,000 people in nearly three years.

In the build-up to the January 22 peace conference, which is being driven by the US and Russia, Syria’s President Bashar al- Assad held talks in Damascus on Wednesday with the foreign minister of Iran, a key ally of his regime, Syrian state news agency SANA said. The report quoted Zarif as saying the purpose of his visit “was to help ensure that the Geneva II conference brings about results that are in the interests of the Syrian people.” Zarif also said he would “work to coordinate a position … that would restore calm and security to Syria,” while urging “all parties to battle extremism and terrorism, which are threats to us all.” Iranian media reported that UN chief Ban had reiterated his stance on the “necessity” of Iran’s presence at the Syria peace conference.

“In our negotiations with all regional and international parties who are involved in the Syrian crisis, I emphasized the necessity of Iran’s participation,” Ban was quoted as saying during a meeting with Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Kuwait. Syria’s opposition has issued several calls rejecting Iran’s presence at the Geneva talks, citing Tehran’s alleged military and political support to the Damascus regime. US secretary of state John Kerry has said Tehran could participate in talks only if it agrees to the principles set out at the creation of a transitional government. Kerry at the Kuwait donors conference announced $380 million in US supplementary humanitarian aid to Syria, which he said would go to people inside Syria affected by the war and to refugees in neighbouring countries.

Ban in his address to the gathering said nearly 9.3 million Syrians — almost half the population — urgently needed humanitarian aid. “When we met a year ago, four million Syrians needed aid … A year later, we face a regional crisis and a humanitarian crisis,” Ban said, pointing out that more than three million people have fled. Human Rights Watch called on international donors at the conference to demand access for relief deliveries to civilians trapped by the fighting. “Syrian authorities have … been unwilling to allow access into besieged areas or civilians to leave towns where an estimated 288,000 people are trapped with little or no aid,” the New York-based group said on Tuesday. Several battleground areas of Damascus province and Homs province to its north have been under siege for at least a year.

Activists have given harrowing accounts of food and medical shortages in besieged areas, including the Old City of Homs and the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in south Damascus. Advocacy group Amnesty International for its part said the world community must act now to end the suffering of Syrian civilians, many of whom face severe shortages of food supply, medical care and adequate shelter. It also called on the Syrian government to lift blockades on the civilian population in opposition held towns and areas. On the battlefield, the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has retaken the Syrian city of Raqa after fierce fighting for the northern provincial capital, a monitoring group said on Tuesday. The jihadist group has been battling a coalition of Islamist and moderate rebels in opposition-held areas across northern Syria. Raqa is the only provincial capital the rebels have managed to fully prise from government control and subsequently became an ISIL stronghold.

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