Red Crescent and Red Cross allowed into areas of Syria hit by violence

International organisations operating in Syria need permits from security services but country agrees to humanitarian aid 'in principle'.

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DAMASCUS // The Red Cross and Red Crescent have been given permission "in principle" to deliver emergency medical treatment and humanitarian supplies to wounded residents in parts of Syria ravaged by violence, including Homs and Banias.

Marianne Gasser, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross-Red Crescent (ICRC) delegation in Damascus, said the Syrian authorities had agreed to allow the ICRC and its sister agencies to launch nationwide emergency relief efforts.

"We have been given authorisation in principle from a very high level by the Syrian authorities and we hope to begin these humanitarian missions as soon as possible," she said.

"It is extremely important that emergency help, including medical expertise and supplies, reaches people in need, and time is of the essence. With the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc) and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies we want to make repeat missions to Deraa and also go to Homs, Banias and other affected areas as soon as arrangements can be made for that to happen."

International organisations operating in Syria need permits from the security services and other arms of government to move around the country. Even with backing from high-level officials such clearances can be all but impossible to obtain.

A United Nations assessment team had been expected to go to Deraa on Sunday or Monday but it has been delayed because access permits from the Syrian authorities have not been given, the UN spokesman Farhan Haq said.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, asked the Syrian president Bashar al Assad on Friday to authorise a human-rights mission to the country, a request he had expressed a "willingness to consider".

"The humanitarian assessment mission has not been able to get into Deraa," Mr Haq said. "We're trying to clarify why it hasn't had access, and we're also trying to get access to other areas of Syria."

Sarc has been working on the ground throughout the uprising, including in Deraa, but Ms Gasser said that, in the face of enormous odds, volunteers had been able to provide only relatively small-scale assistance, typically first aid and occasional evacuations of wounded.

This week army operations have intensified in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, and in the Mediterranean port of Banias, as the Syrian authorities use tank-backed infantry, mass arrests and a block on mobile-phone and internet communications to break an anti-government uprising.

A powerful military force had previously been deployed to Deraa, 100km south of Damascus. The city has been at the forefront of protests calling for freedom and sweeping changes to Syria’s decades-old autocratic system of government.

Mr Ban discussed political turbulence in the Middle East with the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, yesterday. The UN chief said he was “very concerned over reports about Syria mobilising its military against protesters”, a spokesman said. The US has accused Iran of assisting Syria, its main regional ally, in repressing dissidents.

On Thursday afternoon a joint Red Cross-Red Crescent team visited Deraa, the first official mission in Syria since the uprising began eight weeks ago. It came as the military said it was winding down operations in the city, although residents say tanks and troops remain heavily deployed, and a curfew in place.

Reports from inside Deraa say parts of the city have been devastated by shelling and heavy-weapons fire, house raids by soldiers and cuts to water, fuel and electricity supplies.

A communications and media blackout in the area means details on casualties remain sketchy, but human-rights organisations say between 80 and 200 people have been killed in Deraa since the military assault started on March 25.

Civil-rights campaigners say Deraa residents were unable to leave their homes to bury their dead during the siege, with reports that dozens of corpses were instead stored in a freezer lorry.

The Syrian authorities refute those claims, saying their forces have not killed civilians and that, on the contrary, soldiers have died fighting foreign-backed Islamist militants in Deraa.

"There are real humanitarian needs there but, from what I saw, it is not currently a humanitarian crisis," Ms Gasser said. "People need baby milk, surgical supplies to treat the wounded, medicine for chronic diseases, as well as some additional food and for water supplies to be restored."

Ms Gasser said plans were being discussed to send a mobile health clinic to Deraa and the surrounding villages, which would enable those needing medical aid to get help outside of the city’s hospital. Thousands of people suspected of involvement in anti-government protests have been arrested nationwide and remain jailed, according to human-rights groups. No international organisations are allowed access to Syrian detention centres.

The UN’s aid chief, Valerie Amos, warned yesterday that Syrian officials are not answering calls in order to allow relief teams into Deraa, Latakia, Jablah, Banias, Douma and other cities hit by a wave of political violence.

"Despite repeated requests to the Syrian authorities for access … the proposed mission to Deraa on Sunday, May 8, has not gone ahead," said Ms Amos, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs. "While we have no confirmation of the numbers of those detained, injured or killed, we remain concerned about alleged human-rights violations in Syria."

Human-rights organisations estimate that more than 550 civilians and approximately 100 members of the Syrian security services have been killed since March 18, when the first protest took place in Deraa.

The Syrian government said the real number of civilian dead is closer to 70, and blames armed gangs for the deaths.Syria’s use of force against protesters has brought international condemnation, including sanctions from the EU and US against leading regime figures, although not Mr al Assad.

At the United Nations, an intense behind-the-scenes campaign has been waged to prevent Syria from being elected to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. Kuwait is now going to replace Syria as a candidate for a seat on the UN’s top human-rights body.

* James Reinl contributed to this report from the United Nations