UN Humanitarian Chief Visits Battered Syria District

Posted March 7th, 2012 at 2:40 pm (UTC-5)
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The International Committee of the Red Cross says United Nations humanitarian chief Valerie Amos entered the former Syrian rebel stronghold of Baba Amr Wednesday almost a week after the rebels fled a month-long assault by government forces.

An ICRC spokesman in Geneva told VOA that Amos joined a Syrian Arab Red Crescent team on a 45-minute visit to the battered neighborhood in the central city of Homs. The spokesman says the Red Crescent team found that most residents of Baba Amr had fled to nearby areas where aid workers have been distributing food and medical supplies in recent days.

It is the first time the Syrian government has allowed a foreign official to enter Baba Amr since it began a deadly bombardment of the district in early February. Syrian rights activists and witnesses say the assault killed hundreds of people and left residents desperately short of food, water and medical care.

Aid workers had been waiting to send a convoy of supplies into Baba Amr since last Friday, but Syrian authorities kept them out, citing security problems.

Amos also met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem in Damascus on Wednesday at the start of a three-day mission to examine the humanitarian plight of communities targeted by a government crackdown on a year-long opposition uprising.

Syrian state news agency SANA says Moallem told Amos that his government is committed to cooperating with the U.N. humanitarian agency provided that it respects Syrian sovereignty. He also said Damascus is trying to provide food and medical aid to its citizens despite what he called the “burden” of “unfair” Western and Arab sanctions on Syria.

Moallem also met with Chinese envoy Li Huaxin in Damascus on Wednesday. SANA says the Syrian foreign minister pledged to cooperate with a Chinese initiative that calls for an immediate end to violence by all sides in the country and for dialogue between the government and the opposition. Beijing's proposal also rejects any attempts by foreign powers to interfere in Syria's affairs under what it calls the “pretext” of humanitarian assistance.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that Syria's blocking of humanitarian supplies for civilians represents a “new low” in President Bashar al-Assad's violent campaign against his political opponents. She said tons of food and medicine have been standing by while civilians die and the government launches new assaults.

In another development, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta resisted calls from some U.S. lawmakers to launch military strikes against Syrian government forces. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said the situation in Syria is “terrible” but has “no simple answers.”

He said the United States will have to build a multilateral coalition for potential military action. He said that effort “is going to take some time, but when we do it, we will do it right.”