Red Cross chief in Syria as fighting rages

Red Cross chief in Syria as fighting rages
# 04 September 2012 19:37 (UTC +04:00)
Baku-APA. Red Cross chief Peter Maurer launched a mercy mission in Syria to seek greater protection for civilians on Tuesday, as opposition activists said rebel-held areas of second city Aleppo faced severe food shortages under a government offensive, APA reports quoting AFP.

Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, met President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and expressed concern over the humanitarian situation in the war-torn country, ICRC spokesman Hisham Hassan said.

In a 45-minute meeting, he urged respect for international humanitarian law, Hassan said in a statement, and stressed the need to ensure swift provision by the ICRC of humanitarian aid such as medical supplies and equipment to restore damaged water infrastructure.

State television said Assad voiced support for the work of the ICRC in Syria so long as it remains "impartial and independent."

"President Assad assured (Maurer) that he welcomed the humanitarian operations carried out by the committee on the ground in Syria, as long as it remains impartial and independent," the channel reported.

Maurer arrived Monday evening in Damascus for his first visit to Syria since taking over the post on July 1. Besides Assad, he has also met with Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and was scheduled to hold talks with other Syrian officials.

The visit comes amid a surge in violence in the past weeks across Syria, where according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights more than 5,000 people were killed in the month of August alone.

Also in August, more than 100,000 people fled the war-torn country to seek refuge in neighbouring states, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday, in the highest monthly figure since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011.

The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on its information from a network of activists on the ground, said at least 40 people, half of them civilians, were killed in violence across Syria on Tuesday.

It put Monday’s death toll at 153 -- 81 civilians, including 19 children and 14 women, 42 soldiers and 30 rebels.

An activist said rebel-held neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Aleppo were struggling with severe food shortages due to the government offensive.

"The regime prevents food from reaching the liberated areas (under rebel control). Residents are forced to smuggle products from neighbourhood to neighbourhood," said an activist in the opposition-held Sakhur district, giving his name only as Barra.

"When I buy something, I have to go to several grocery stores and supermarkets before finding what I want: eggs, yoghurt, rice, children’s milk are almost non-existent. Markets are almost empty," he told AFP via Skype.

"It is difficult to find gas canisters also... it’s a real siege, collective punishment," said the activist. "If the regime could deprive us of air, it would."

In sharp contrast, life returned to the streets of central Aleppo following advances by regime forces, an AFP reporter said. Shops were open for business and residents went about their errands in the city centre.

On Monday, an entire family -- including seven children -- was killed when a government air raid hit their home in the heart of Aleppo, witnesses told an AFP correspondent in the city.

A fighter jet also struck in nearby Al-Bab, killing at least nine people, according to doctors.

Activists said that on Tuesday some outlying districts of the northern city were bombarded with artillery and mortars as was an area near Aleppo airport.

In the capital Damascus, fighting broke out in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk early Tuesday between rebels and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Observatory said.

Elsewhere in central Syria, a 15-year-old rebel was killed during clashes in Old Homs, in a city which has been devastated by shelling since the early days of the revolt.

Monday’s air strikes came as the main opposition Syrian National Council appealed to the international community for weapons and urgent military intervention to defend civilians from such attacks.

"We need a humanitarian intervention and we are asking for military intervention for the Syrian civilians," SNC chairman Abdel Basset Sayda said. "I have the duty of asking for weapons that will allow us to defend against the Syrian armour and weapons."

Meanwhile, the partner of Mika Yamamoto, a veteran Japanese war reporter shot dead in Aleppo on August 20, urged Damascus on Tuesday to investigate her death, saying she had been ambushed by pro-government forces.

"I suspect the government side is afraid to see Western journalists, including us, report facts," Kazutaka Sato told a news conference in Tokyo.

According to the Observatory, more than 26,000 people have been killed in Syria since the revolt began 17 months ago -- more than two-thirds of them civilians. The figures are impossible to verify.