UN demands humanitarian access to eastern Syria

UN demands humanitarian access to eastern Syria
In the past week alone, the UN says more than 10,000 people have fled from the conflict zone to al-Hol.
3 min read
02 February, 2019
More than 10,000 people have fled to al-Hol in ten days [Getty]
The United Nations called for "unhindered humanitarian access" to people fleeing the last pocket of Islamic State jihadists in eastern Syria on Friday.

In the past week alone, the UN says more than 10,000 people have fled from the conflict zone to al-Hol, where the main camp for people displaced by the fighting against IS is located.

"Humanitarian actors have collectively requested forces in control of the area to designate a transit site en route for al-Hol where life-saving assistance can be provided," said Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

So far the request "remains unanswered", he told journalists in Geneva.

But the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who control the area around al-Hol, immediately responded that they had never received such a request from the UN.

"On the contrary, we have long expressed our position that we need assistance, especially UN aid to support us on this issue, which is beyond the capability of the" Kurdish authorities, SDF spokesman Redur Khalil told AFP.

In al-Hol, "there is malnutrition, a lack of medical supplies, tents, and blankets", he added.

Over the past month, the SDF were able to secure the exit of 20,000 Iraqis - mostly women and children - from IS-held territory, as well as hundreds of Syrians and non-Iraqi foreigners.

Backed by a US-led coalition, the SDF are battling the last shreds of the IS "caliphate" near the town of Hajin in the Euphrates River valley.

The UNHCR says families fleeing the Hajin enclave describe a harrowing journey, "wading through mine fields and open fighting".

Once reaching the SDF positions, "they describe being herded into open trucks and having to endure another arduous journey in winter weather northwards to al-Hol camp. Little or no assistance is provided en route to the hungry and cold people, the vast majority of whom are women and children", a UNHCR statement said.

Since early December at least 29 young children and newborns died on their journey or shortly after arrival at the camp, according to the UN.

"We reiterate our calls for unhindered humanitarian access. It is vital that our teams are able to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance, especially during this harsh winter period," Mahecic said.

The UN's World Food Programme says around 6.5 million people are unable to meet their food needs in Syria, most of them internally displaced by the war.

The fight against IS

The conflict has killed 360,000 people and led millions to flee their homes since starting with the brutal repression on anti-government protests in 2011.

The Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are ramping up their assault on the last farmsteads occupied by IS militants, who are putting up stiff resistance to the US-backed fighters. 

US-led coalition planes are heavily bombing the small Hajin pocket held by IS, with militants reporting miserable conditions in the area, with food shortages forcing locals and fighters to live off grass and wheat.

The Islamic State group's last territories in Syria will fall within weeks, the US defence secretary has said, as the militants fight on to the last hamlets under their control. 

"I'd say 99.5 percent plus of the [IS]-controlled territory has been returned to the Syrians. Within a couple of weeks, it’ll be 100 percent," Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said.

IS have continued to launch counter-attacks and bombings on US and SDF forces in Syria and are feared to be operating sleeper cells in liberated areas.

IS declared the establishment of a "caliphate" in 2014, occupying huge swathes of land in Syria and Iraq.

The group lost almost all of its territories following a US-led assault on their strongholds, with the urban centres of Mosul and Raqqa falling after a bloody stand-off by the militants.

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