UN sends aid to Syria as Turkey calls for ground operation


UN convoys delivering aid to thousands of besieged Syrians were due to set out on Wednesday, but hopes for lasting peace dimmed the day after Turkey called for a ground operation in its war-torn neighbour. Syria's government has approved access to seven besieged areas, including the city of Madaya where dozens of people are thought to have died from starvation, a spokeswoman for the UN's humanitarian affairs office said.

Speaking in Damascus, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said aid convoys will be sent on Wednesday in what will be a test of whether the warring parties will allow in humanitarian supplies.

"It is the duty of the government of Syria to want to reach every Syrian person wherever they are and allow the UN to bring humanitarian aid," he said after meeting Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. "Tomorrow we test this," he said on Tuesday.

Almost half a million people in Syria are in areas under seige, according to the UN, after almost five years of civil war between Syria's government and rebel forces. A Red Crescent source said the first convoys will head for the rebel-besieged Shia villages of Fuaa and Kafraya in the north, as well as to Madaya and Zabadani, which are encircled by the army.

Allowing in humanitarian aid was an important element in negotiations to clinch a ceasefire across war-torn Syria, but both sides have cast doubt on whether it will be implemented. Seventeen world powers agreed to a nationwide "cessation of hostilities" across Syria within a week under a deal struck in Munich last Thursday to end a war that has killed more than 260,000 people.

But the bombings of at least five medical facilities and two schools in northern Syria, which the UN said Monday killed 50 people including children, have dimmed hopes for a ceasefire. Under the deal, a new round of peace talks will be held in Geneva on 25 February.

"I can't say categorically that a week from last Thursday there must be a cessation of hostilities," deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. "I'm not trying to excuse the delay in any way, shape or form. I think we're going to continue to pursue, aggressively, the cessation of hostilities."

Syria's envoy to the UN Bashar Jaafari on Tuesday also warned that "a ceasefire would take much longer than a week".

The school and hospital bombings took place around Syria's second city of Aleppo, where the government has been pressing a major offensive against the rebels backed by Russian airstrikes.

Neither the UN nor the US have directly accused Moscow of carrying out those airstrikes, but the State Department said Monday the attacks cast doubt on Russia's willingness or ability to stop the fighting. US President Barack Obama said the ceasefire would be difficult to achieve while Russia's bombing campaign continues.

"If Russia continues indiscriminate bombing of the sort that we've been seeing, I think it's fair to say that you're not gonna see any take-up by the opposition," he said on Tuesday. Russia denied it had bombed any hospital, calling such reports "unsubstantiated accusations".

Turkey, however, has branded Russia's air war in support of Assad as "barbaric" and is now pushing to send in troops to Syria with the help of the United States and Gulf states.

"We want a ground operation with our international allies," a senior Turkish official told reporters in Istanbul. "There is not going to be a unilateral military operation from Turkey to Syria," the official emphasised, but added: "Without a ground operation it is impossible to stop the fighting in Syria."

On Tuesday, the Pentagon said Saudi Arabia has resumed airstrikes with the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Syria.

Turkey has also been locked in its own war with Kurdish rebels in the north of Syria, which it believes are allied to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has waged an insurgency on its soil for decades. It fears the Kurds will be able to create a their own territory just across the border in northern Syria. On Tuesday, Turkey shelled Kurdish positions in northern Syria for a fourth straight day, monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Kurdish fighters in Syria of being "Russia's legion working as mercenaries" and harming Turkey's interests. "Those vile, cruel and barbaric planes have made close to 8,000 sorties since 30 September without any discrimination between civilians and soldiers, or children and the elderly," he said.

The UN on Tuesday criticised the strikes after talks requested by Russia, in a decision hailed by Syria's envoy.

The Venezuelan ambassador Rafael Ramirez told reporters the 15 council members "expressed concern about the Turkish attacks in northern Syria" and will "ask Turkey to comply with international law."    (AFP)

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