The new head of the International Committee of the Red Cross said Friday he has received positive commitments from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, but stressed the promises needed to be tested in coming weeks.
Flights from Damascus have been cancelled, at least one crossing into Iraq shut, and shells are landing close to the Jordanian border, but more than 246,000 refugees have already fled Syria and the exodus is growing, humanitarian agencies said on Friday.
Seventeen months after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad begun, Syria remains convulsed by serious fighting between government troops and lightly-armed rebel fighters with few signs that either side is close to gaining the upper hand.
The violence, which has killed 20,000 people, has uprooted an estimated 1.2 million people within Syria and prompted tens of thousands to flee the country, according to the United Nations, Reuters reported.
“Since the conflict erupted there have been many casualties, and now the situation is rapidly deteriorating even further," said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who met President al-Assad in Damascus earlier this week.
Maurer, who has just returned from a three-day visit to Syria, told reporters in Geneva that his meetings with Assad and other Syrian government officials had been “positive.”
“I had a sober, to the point discussion focused on humanitarian issues, and the president, during the conversation I had with him, showed his commitment to work on many of the points I brought forward to him as obstacles to the work of the ICRC,” he said, according to AFP.
Describing his “shock” at the destruction he witnessed in Syria and the severe difficulty in distributing aid in the country, Maurer stressed that Assad and other officials had among other things agreed “on facilitating and lowering administrative hurdles on humanitarian imports.”
This is vital, he insisted.
“Health workers face tremendous difficulties in performing their duties. Many men, women and children who could be saved are dying on a daily basis because they lack access to medical care,” he said in a statement.
When asked at the news conference if he believed the Syrian president was sincere in his commitment, he said time would tell.
“I must conclude that he is seriously interested in looking into some of these problems,” he said, but added: “Proof of the pudding is in eating it.”
“The positive commitments I received during my meetings will obviously have to be followed up and tested in the coming weeks,” he said in a statement.
At the news conference, Maurer meanwhile pointed out that he had detected a change of attitude since his predecessor Jakob Kellenberger met with Assad in April, saying Assad no longer appeared in denial about the gravity of the crisis in his country.
“I had the impression that the representatives of the Syrian government are aware that there is a crisis, and that they need to allow aid to suffering populations,” he said.
The new Red Cross chief said he had also discussed ICRC’s “outstanding request to visit all persons detained in Syria in connection with the current events.”
While his organization has already been granted access to visit the prison population, Maurer said he had asked to also gain access to all those who are detained but who have yet to arrive in prisons.
The ICRC wanted to be able to meet with persons held in all facilities, he said, “including those managed by the security authorities and those used for interrogation.”
He pointed out that “since March 2011, tens of thousands of people have been detained in the country. Their basic rights must be upheld and they must be able to get in touch with their families.”
Assad “neither agreed nor disagreed on this issue,” said Maurer, who did not provide numbers of how many detainees the ICRC has been able to visit to date.
The violence in Syria has claimed more than 26,000 lives since it erupted in mid-March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.