UN says 6.8 million need aid in Syria, raps Damascus

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - Nearly seven million people need humanitarian assistance in Syria, a senior United Nations official said, criticising Damascus for hampering aid distribution.

"The needs are growing rapidly and are most severe in the conflict and opposition-controlled areas" of the civil-war ravaged country, the global body's humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told the UN Security Council on Thursday.

She cited data showing there are 6.8 million people in need - out of a total population of 20.8 million - along with 4.25 million people internally displaced and an additional 1.3 million who have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

The 15-member council responded by urging both the government and the opposition to cooperate with UN agencies.

"Members of the Security Council urged all parties to ensure safe and unimpeded access for aid organisations to those in need in all areas of Syria," they said in a statement.

"They deplored the obstacles to the provision of humanitarian assistance and underlined the urgent need to remove all such obstacles, including those which are bureaucratic in nature."

The statement also suggested that aid shipments be allowed to cross borders where necessary.

And it called on all sides to "protect civilians and respect international human rights and humanitarian law, recalling the primary responsibility of the Syrian authorities in this regard."

Ms Amos, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said that bureaucratic obstacles have grown since January, "inhibiting our ability to respond."

"The limitations on the ground have forced us to being precariously close to suspending some critical humanitarian operations. We are approaching a point of no return," she said.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, addressing the UN Security Council by video link, said the number of refugees could surpass 3.5 million by the end of the year.

"These figures are terrifying. This is not just frightening, it risks becoming simply unsustainable," he said, calling for more international support for countries hosting refugees, including Lebanon and Jordan.

Ms Amos said the number of approved nongovernmental organizations in Syria was recently cut from 110 to 29, and the UN has just been told that every truck needs a permit signed by two ministers to pass government checkpoints.

"When I tell the Council that a convoy from Damascus to Aleppo goes through 50 checkpoints - half of them government controlled - you will appreciate the impossibility of this request." "We cannot do business this way," she said, adding that 21 visa applications are still pending, and a request to import 22 armored vehicles has still not been approved.

The needs are most pressing in border areas, she said, adding that in the region around Aleppo, "contrary to some widely held perceptions, aid flows across the Turkish border have significantly reduced in the past two months.

"So we are not reaching those most urgently in need of our help," she said.

Despite the difficulties, the World Food Program helped nearly two million people in March, and UNICEF and its partners have supplied drinking water to 5 million people, Amos noted.

As for funding, she said the UN had received about half of the US$1.5 billion (S$1.9 billion) needed for humanitarian aid to Syria until June, including a recent US$300 million allocation pledged by Kuwait.

"I ask those (UN) member state who have not yet converted their conference pledges to cash to do so urgently," she added.