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Red Cross chief presses for more aid access, cease-fire in Syria

April 3, 2012 |  8:50 am

REPORTING FROM BEIRUT — Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger was meeting with top Syrian officials in Damascus on Tuesday in a bid to get greater aid access to those wounded and displaced in the crisis-torn country and to press for a daily humanitarian cease-fire.

"He already met with the minister of foreign affairs and is scheduled to meet with the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent," Saleh Dabbakeh, an International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman in Damascus, said by telephone. "He has gone to meet the minister of Interior and the minister of Health. In all these meetings certain issues are being discussed."

Kellenberger was seeking to expand the Red Cross' ability to reach Syrians in need, according to Dabbakeh. He also was seeking access to detainees and pressing to "implement on the ground" a daily two-hour humanitarian cease-fire to allow in aid — one of the conditions in U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan's proposed peace plan.

"There is an increasing number people of who need assistance, and that includes the ICRC being present in various places," Dabbakeh said. "And there is the protection of civilians through the humanitarian cease-fire. We want two hours at least every day in areas where there is fighting to be able to bring in humanitarian assistance and supplies. It was initially accepted by all parties."

The United Nations estimates that at least 9,000 people have died in the revolt against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad. What started as peaceful protests have shifted into an armed rebellion, and diplomatic efforts have so far failed to end the violence.

Aside from a daily humanitarian cease-fire and access for media workers and humanitarian groups, Annan's six-point plan demands an immediate withdrawal of troops and heavy military equipment from populated areas across the country.

On Monday, Annan told the U.N. Security Council that Assad had agreed to withdraw his security forces from large population centers by April 10. The international envoy also asked the council to plan for the deployment of U.N. observers to supervise a cease-fire by all parties.

Syrian activists reported clashes and security violations across the country Tuesday despite the government's peace pledge. By late afternoon, the Syrian activist network Local Coordination Committees, which documents the uprising, had reported 11 dead, including two elderly women. 
The network said there were clashes between the rebel Free Syrian Army and government troops in a Damascus suburb Tuesday and that Assad troops stormed the town of Atman in the southern province of Dara and burned houses of some activists. Tanks were roaming the streets in the area, the group said. The group also reported arrest campaigns in the city of Dair Alzour and in Karnaz in Hama province.

The Syrian government has restricted the access of media to the fighting, so statements by both sides about the fighting for the most part cannot be independently verified.

The opposition as well as many Western envoys are skeptical that the embattled president will adhere to Annan's plan. The Syrian government has previously agreed to a peace accord only to ignore the conditions and continue its crackdown on dissent.

Last month, the Red Cross was prevented by the Syrian government from entering the overrun rebel enclave of Baba Amr in Homs, where it had planned to bring in aid supplies and evacuate sick and wounded. But Dabbakeh remained optimistic and said the organization has been able to expand its work since then.

"We have expanded our presence, our period of time. ... Things are happening and hopefully they will continue to happen," he said.


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Photo: Abdulrahman Attar, left, president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and Jakob Kellenberger, chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross, speak with the media in Damascus, Syria on Tuesday. Credit: Loulai Beshara / Agence France-Presse Getty Images.