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U.N. withdrawing staff from Syria, citing danger

March 25, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • In an image from video, a building burns after government shelling near Damascus, the Syrian capital. The United Nations announced it is temporarily withdrawing staff from the war-torn nation because of safety concerns.
In an image from video, a building burns after government shelling near… (Shaams News Network )

BEIRUT -- The United Nations said Monday that it is temporarily withdrawing some of its international staff from Syria because of deteriorating security conditions, especially in the capital, Damascus, where rebel mortar attacks have escalated in recent days.

Central Damascus came under heavy mortar fire Sunday and some shells fell on the grounds of the hotel housing U.N. personnel, Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for the world body, told reporters in New York. The shells damaged several cars, including one U.N. vehicle, the spokesman said.

On Monday, state-run Syrian media reported that two people were killed in the capital when mortar shells fell close to the downtown Opera House, which also suffered damage. The official news service blamed the attack on "terrorists," the government's usual description for armed rebels.

Insurgents based in the capital's outskirts have regularly been shelling the heavily guarded city, which remains under the control of the government of President Bashar Assad. Rebels have also launched sometimes devastating car bomb attacks in Damascus and its environs.

The U.N. stressed that it was not abandoning Syria, which is in the midst of a two-year civil conflict that has left more than 70,000 dead, according to U.N. estimates.

“The United Nations remains active and committed to helping the Syrian sides in their search for a political solution,” the spokesman said.

At the moment, however, there is little prospect of a political settlement. All international efforts to broker a cease-fire between the government and the armed opposition have failed.

Among the personnel being moved from the capital are the staff of the joint United Nations-Arab League peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. The envoy’s aides are being relocated to Beirut and Cairo, the U.N. said.

Currently, the U.N. said, about 100 international staffers and 800 Syrians are working with various U.N. agencies in Damascus.

The U.N. agencies are working to provide food, shelter, medical aid and other humanitarian support to the millions in need in the war-ravaged nation. Many experts have called Syria a humanitarian catastrophe. The conflict has left much of the nation’s infrastructure destroyed, including hospitals, schools, roads and water supply facilities.

The war has displaced more than 2 million people in Syria, while 1 million others have fled the country.

“The U.N. will maintain inside Syria the number of staff and capacity required to continue running its critical humanitarian programs and deliver assistance to civilians in need,” the spokesman said.

Last week, the U.N. said it would send a team to Syria to investigate allegations of a poison-gas attack on March 19 outside the northern city of Aleppo that the government said killed more than two dozen people. The government and the opposition each blamed the other for the alleged chemical attack, a pattern of mutual finger-pointing that has followed many reports of atrocities in Syria.

Both sides said a rocket carried the alleged chemical agent.

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