Senior U.N. official visits Syria amid snow storm

Valerie Amos said her trip to Syria from Lebanon was delayed because of the storm

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The United Nations' humanitarian chief briefly visited Syria Saturday, where she discussed with officials ways of improving winter conditions for millions of people displaced by the country's civil war as a harsh snow storm struck the region.

Valerie Amos said her trip to Syria from Lebanon was delayed because of the storm, which has worsened the misery of Syrian refugees, many of whom are living in tents without heating.

“I have also just been in Lebanon and was able there to talk to the (U.N.) team about the programs we have been putting in place to help people through the winter,” Amos said in brief remarks in the Syrian capital. “Winter is extremely harsh as you can see. I was delayed on my own trip over here.”

Amos met with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, his deputy Faysal Mikdad and Minister of Social Affairs Kinda Shammat before she headed back to Lebanon in the early afternoon.

Shammat said following her meeting with Amos that the two sides have agreed on more cooperation with “international organizations to bring in all aids to all Syrian areas and to those who deserve those aids.” She did not elaborate.

The storm, which began on Wednesday, stuck large parts of Syria as well as Lebanon and Jordan where hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled since the country's crisis began in March 2011. The civil war has left more than 120,000 people dead.

By Saturday afternoon, the weather improved and the skies became clear as the storm, dubbed Alexa, was reaching its end. Despite the clear skies however, temperatures remained near freezing forcing many Syrian refugees in Lebanon to stay in their tents.

In the border Lebanese town of Arsal, which is home to more than 40,000 Syrian refugees, activists distributed dozens of diesel heaters. But there were not enough for everyone.

Baseem al-Atrash, who heads the Jusour al-Nour or Bridges of Hope organization, said some refugees in tents in the town were still without heaters. He added that they were distributing 20 liters of diesel for every family.

“There were families covering themselves with blankets and shivering in the cold,” al-Atrash said by telephone from Arsal. He added that many refugees went to the town's clinics asking for medicines.

Lebanese police spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Musalam said they did not receive any reports of refugee deaths as a result of the storm.

On Friday, a Lebanese security official said a three-month-old Syrian baby died in the northern town of Akroum. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the newborn had respiratory problems and the cold spell may have aggravated his condition.

In Syria, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two men were found frozen to death Saturday near the central town of Houla in the Homs province. The Observatory added that a local commander of the Suqour al-Sham rebel group was found frozen to death in the northwestern province of Idlib.

In Beirut, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta met his Lebanese counterpart Najib Mikati and promised that Rome will give $50 million in aid to help Beirut's efforts in the refugee crisis.

Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million, is hosting more than a million refugees.

Also Friday, the commander of the main Western-backed rebel group Gen. Salim Idris made his first public statements since Islamic militants captured warehouses in Syria last weekend that contained a cache of machine guns and ammunition intended for his group.

The seizure by fighters loyal to Syria's newly created Islamic Front, an umbrella group of powerful, mostly ultra-conservative Islamic fighters, prompted the U.S. and Britain to suspend nonlethal military aid to the opposition in northern Syria, fearing that it could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. Such non-lethal aid, often equipment such as night vision goggles, laptop computers and secure radios, was also in the warehouses.

The incident dealt a serious blow to the Syrian opposition, which is struggling to maintain international support as extremists expand their hold across rebel-held territories.

Idris, the Free Syrian Army commander, told Al-Arabiya TV that “negotiations are ongoing and our aim with the brothers in the Islamic Front is to unite our stances.” He did not elaborate, adding that he was speaking from an area on the Turkish-Syrian border.

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