Last updated: 4 September, 2012

Red Cross chief in Syria as fighting rages

Red Cross chief Peter Maurer launched a mission in Syria to seek greater protection for civilians on Tuesday, as activists said rebel-held areas of besieged Aleppo faced severe food shortages.

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 country, ICRC spokesman Hisham Hassan said.

In a 45-minute meeting, he urged respect for international humanitarian law and stressed the need to ensure the ICRC could swiftly provide aid such as medical supplies and equipment to restore damaged water infrastructure.

State television said Assad had assured Maurer that he supported the work of the Red Cross in Syria “as long as it remains impartial and independent.”

Maurer was in Damascus for his first visit to Syria since taking over the post on July 1. He also met with Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.

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

The new UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi described the death toll there as “staggering” and destruction wrought by the conflict as “catastrophic” in comments to the UN General Assembly in New York Tuesday.

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.

In comments to the General Assembly Tuesday, UN chief Ban Ki-moon denounced those countries sending arms to Syria.

“Those who provide arms to either side are only contributing to further misery — and the risk of unintended consequences as the fighting intensifies and spreads,” Ban told the 193-member Assembly.

Ban did not name any country but Russia is President Bashar al-Assad’s main arms supplier while UN officials say Iran has made arms deliveries to his forces.

Assad has accused Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey of arming the opposition.

In a statement released earlier, he appealed for international funding to cope with the refugee exodus.

“The humanitarian situation is grave and deteriorating both in Syria and in neighboring countries affected by the crisis,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky quoted Ban as saying.

A $180 million UN humanitarian appeal for Syria has only been half funded.

“Governments that have generously opened their borders and accepted their responsibility to shelter those who have sought refuge urgently need support,” Ban added in the comments.

The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on its information from a network of activists on the ground, said at least 113 people, 81 of them civilians, were killed across Syria on Tuesday.

Regime helicopters opened fire over Aleppo’s Old City and the flashpoint district of Saif al-Dawla, an AFP reporter said, as sporadic shelling of residential areas of Syria’s second city killed at least seven people, according to hospital records.

“We do not have the capacity to engage in frontal attacks because we only have light weapons,” said fighter Ahmed Khatib after he and his men attacked an army checkpoint in the Old City with improvised grenades.

Shelling had also damaged the domed roof of a historic bathhouse in the Old City, the Al-Kawas which was built in 1392 during the Mamluk period. Residents said the hammam had been hit by a tank on Monday.

“We are very upset, this is Syria’s heritage,” said fighter Abu Hweira, member of a brigade which had been using the ancient bath’s running water to shower between skirmishes.

“The regime prevents food from reaching the liberated areas (under rebel control),” said one activist in the opposition-held Sakhur district, who gave his name only as Barra.

“Residents are forced to smuggle products from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.”

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

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

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.

Speaking from Tokyo he said she had been ambushed by pro-government forces.

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.