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Syria conflict blocks aid to 1 million needy, U.N. agency says

The World Food Program says fighting has prevented deliveries of aid. In addition, hundreds of thousands are ill-equipped for the harsh winter.

January 08, 2013|By Nabih Bulos and Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times
  • A Syrian refugee is among those whose tents were flooded at the Zaatari camp in Jordan.
A Syrian refugee is among those whose tents were flooded at the Zaatari camp… (Mohammad Hannon / Associated…)

BEIRUT — The World Food Program said Tuesday that Syria's civil war has blocked the United Nations agency from delivering aid to at least 1 million people who are in desperate need of help.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the U.N. agency's local partner, has been stretched to capacity and violence between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and the armed opposition has prevented aid workers from reaching some needy Syrians, said Abeer Etefa, an agency spokeswoman.

Truck drivers have been reluctant to transport food into conflict areas, and World Food Program staff members have had to ride in armored vehicles to monitor food distribution in some areas, Etefa said.

She said the U.N. agency also has had difficulty accessing its main warehouse in Damascus, the capital.

"There are serious bread and fuel shortages across the country, with large numbers of Syrians who are displaced and seeking shelter," she said. "We are already helping 1.5 people million in Syria, but we estimate that 1 million are still in need of food assistance."

Damascus and surrounding areas have seen intense fighting. Airstrikes have targeted rebel-held areas, and antigovernment fighters have carried out assassinations and set off bombs in the city.

Conditions have forced the World Food Program to find alternative access points into Syria, including sending food overland from Lebanon instead of relying on the main harbor in Tartus. Shipments to the port were cut off after a shipping company refused to deliver there, but have since resumed.

An estimated 597,240 Syrian refugees are facing harsh winter weather, many equipped with only flimsy canvas tents and insufficient clothing. In northern Jordan, a riot broke out Tuesday over bread shortages at the Zaatari refugee camp near the Syrian border, an aid worker said. No more information was immediately available.

Zaatari has been inundated by heavy rain over the last two days, making some parts of the camp uninhabitable. Twenty-four families were moved to prefabricated huts because of mud and pools of water, said Mohammad Askar, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.

"The problem is that there are only 2,500 of these prefabricated huts from Saudi Arabia. This is not enough to provide the necessary humanitarian assistance," Askar said.

Also Tuesday, Yarmouk, a sprawling enclave of mostly Palestinian refugees, was shelled and saw fighting between Syrian rebels and government supporters. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based nongovernmental organization, said four people in the camp, in southern Damascus, were killed by shelling and a fifth by a sniper.

Syria's 21-month-old civil war has split Yarmouk's Palestinians into armed pro- and anti-Assad factions. In December, the camp was shelled as pro-rebel fighters tried to take it over and clashed with Assad's supporters.

Fourteen Palestinian factions issued a statement calling for calm and urging fighters to withdraw from the camp "in order not to bear the responsibility of the continuing displacement of [Yarmouk's] residents," the Associated Press reported.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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