Syria has agreed to allow the United Nations and international agencies to expand humanitarian operations in the country, where at least 1 million people need assistance after 14 months of bloody conflict, a senior UN aid official said on Tuesday.
"This agreement was secured in Damascus with the government there, in writing," John Ging, who chaired the closed-door Syrian Humanitarian Forum, told reporters in Geneva.
"Freedom of movement, unimpeded access for humanitarian action within Syria, is what it's all about now. The good faith of the (Syrian) government will be tested on this issue today, tomorrow and every day," he said.
The United Nations is struggling to deliver humanitarian aid because of visa delays and the difficulty in reaching areas ravaged by fighting, UN and European Union officials said.
"We have the feeling that we are running behind a train of increasing speed - the train of humanitarian suffering. So while some progress has been achieved, the needs are deepening by the day, there is a need to accelerate," Claus Sorensen, Director-General of the European Humanitarian Office ECHO, told Reuters.
UN aid agencies have been largely shut out of Syria but have tried for months to launch a major aid operation. The plan was draw up after an assessment mission carried out with Syrian officials in March.
Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, Syria's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, attended the closed-door talks. Also present was Radhouane Nouicer, UN regional humanitarian coordinator, who has been negotiating better access with Syrian authorities since the last forum on April 20.
"It's true that Radhouane Nouicer has had very intense contacts with the Syrian government, and he is extracting positive news, but it simply doesn't go fast enough," Sorensen said in an interview before the meeting began.
"The main bottlenecks are visas for international aid workers, access to the different hotspots and the possibility to control the delivery of goods," Sorensen said.
The UN's World Food Program (WFP) provided food supplies to 250,000 people in Syria as of mid-May and aims to reach 500,000 by mid-June, the latest WFP report said.
Volunteers from the Syrian Red Crescent do the actual distributions of WFP family food baskets, which contain rice, bulgur, pasta, cooking oil, sugar and canned meat.
Syria bans 17 Western envoys
Earlier, Syria branded 17 diplomats, most of them American and European, as
"persona non grata" (unwelcome) in response to a mass expulsion of
Syrian envoys by Western capitals last week.
But the foreign
ministry said the government was still open to re-establishing ties with
the diplomats, almost all of whom had already been recalled by their
"The Syrian Arab Republic still believes in the
importance of dialogue based on principles of equality and mutual
respect," a ministry statement it said. "We hope the countries that
initiated these steps will adopt those principles, which would allow
relations to return to normal again."
Syria has been mired in
bloody conflict for over a year as security forces seek to crush a
revolt against President Bashar Assad's rule.
The United States,
France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Bulgaria and
Switzerland coordinated a move to expel Syrian diplomats in response to a
massacre of 108 people in the city of Houla. Nearly half those killed