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UN urges no ‘politicisation’ of aid to earthquake victims in Syria

Geneva – The UN insisted on Thursday on the need to avoid “politicisation” of aid to earthquake victims in Syria, which faces international sanctions, and urged Washington and Brussels to ensure there were “no impediments”.

“Emergency response must not be politicised,” Geir Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, told reporters in Geneva, saying the aid needed to get to areas controlled by Damascus as well as those held by rebels.

Monday’s massive earthquake flattened entire sections of major cities in Türkiye and Syria, killing more than 17,500 people, injuring thousands more and leaving many more without shelter in the winter cold.

The situation is of particular concern in Syria, which has been ravaged by more than a decade of civil war and where more than 3,162 people have been killed in the quake.

“We need to do everything to make sure that there are no impediments whatsoever to the life-saving support that is needed in Syria,” Pedersen said.

Damascus has been hit by more than a decade of economic sanctions, and there have been calls for them to be temporarily lifted to facilitate the arrival of aid.

Others meanwhile pointed out that sanctions were not designed to impede aid.

When asked about this, Pedersen said he had been “discussing the issue, in particular with representatives from the United States and from the European Union”.

“They assure me that they will do whatever they can to make sure that there are no impediments to assistance coming to Syria to help in this operation,” he said.

The rebel-held areas of Syria near Türkiye’s border are in a particularly dire situation since they cannot receive aid from government-held parts of Syria without authorisation from Damascus.

At the same time, the sole border crossing used to shuttle life-saving aid from Türkiye into conflict-ravaged Syria has seen its operations disrupted by the deadly earthquake since Monday.

An aid convoy managed to cross there on Thursday and Pedersen voiced confidence that “there will be obviously more assistance coming”.

“Our immediate asks are two: access and resources. We need life-saving aid. It’s desperately needed by civilians, wherever they are, irrespective of borders and boundaries,” Pedersen said.

“We need it urgently, through the fastest, most direct and most effective routes,” he said.

An official at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing confirmed that the aid convoy had reached the rebel-held north-western region in Syria.

“The first UN aid convoy entered today,” said Mazen Alloush, the media officer at the crossing.

An AFP correspondent saw six trucks passing through the crossing from Türkiye, carrying tents and hygiene products.

An aerial view of the United Nations aid convoy that entered rebel-held north-western Syria from Türkiye through the Bab el-Hawa crossing on February 9, 2023. Picture: Omar Haj Kadour / AFP

Alloush noted that the delivery had been expected before Monday’s quake, but said: “It could be considered an initial response from the United Nations, and it should be followed, as we were promised, with bigger convoys to help our people.”

The aid delivery mechanism from Türkiye into the rebel-held region Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing is the only way UN assistance can reach civilians without navigating areas controlled by Syrian government forces.

While the crossing itself was not affected by the 7.8-magnitude quake, the road leading to it was damaged, disrupting operations, a UN spokesman said on Tuesday.

Humanitarian aid in rebel-held areas usually arrives through Türkiye via a cross-border mechanism created in 2014 by a UN Security Council resolution.

But it is contested by Damascus and its ally Russia and the number of crossing points has been reduced over time to just one from four.

Asked whether it would be possible to open more border crossings to get aid through, Pedersen said that “the Turks are in the process of opening more crossings”.

But “those are not border crossings that have been approved by the UN, via the Security Council, so that means that it is difficult for the UN to use them”, he said.

He suggested though that countries might be able to do so.

AFP

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