UN to survey health needs in 4 Syrian cities

JOHN HEILPRIN Associated Press Published:

GENEVA (AP) -- The Syrian government will allow the United Nations to assess the basic medical needs of Syrians in four areas where opposition forces have clashed with government troops and to also carry out a preliminary humanitarian needs assessment, officials said Friday.

But the rare access to strife-torn areas of Syria gained by two U.N. agencies for health and population needs depends on the cooperation of local medical students, Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid workers and other non-government organizations to conduct the survey.

A third U.N. agency, for humanitarian needs, announced Friday it had gained access for its own preliminary assessment.

For the past year, Syria's government has engaged in a bloody crackdown on a popular uprising inspired by the Arab Spring movements in other countries in the region. The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed. Activists put the death toll at more than 8,000.

World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic says a "very preliminary and basic survey" overseen by his agency and the U.N. Population Fund will be carried out next week with the cooperation of Syria's health ministry.

Medical students and aid workers will fan out in four areas affected by the crisis: the rebellious city of Homs, the southern town of Daraa where protests began, the northeastern city of Deir al-Zour and rural parts of the capital Damascus, he told reporters in Geneva.

"It is very difficult to assess needs and provide an independent evaluation in order to get a clear overview of the situation and the needs on the ground," Jasarevic said. "The results will be analyzed by a technical committee composed of most of the agencies of the health sector."

In particular, he said, local aid workers say they already know there is a critical lack of medical help ranging from not enough ambulances to sparse medicine and other supplies, particularly for trauma care and chronic diseases.

The U.N. health agency says that since the start of the crisis last year its office in Syria has been providing the nation's health ministry and the Red Crescent with ambulances, surgery supplies, and equipment such as ventilators and incubators for newborn babies.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which has been negotiating for access in Syria, said Friday it has gained permission to take a "first step" toward providing badly needed medical help, food and basic supplies.

After a three-day tour of Syria that included Homs and parts of its devastated suburb of Baba Amr, OCHA head Valerie Amos said in Ankara, Turkey, that she was "horrified by the destruction."

"Almost all the buildings had been destroyed and there were hardly any people left there," she said.

Amos said in a statement provided to reporters in Geneva that she is "extremely concerned as to the whereabouts of the people who have been displaced from Baba Amr."

She said her meetings with Syrian government ministers ended with an agreement for "a joint preliminary humanitarian assessment mission" that would be done in areas where people most urgently need help.

"While this is a necessary first step, it remains essential that a robust and regular arrangement be put in place, which allows humanitarian organizations unhindered access to evacuate the wounded and deliver desperately needed supplies," she said. "A proposal has been submitted to the government of Syria, and I ask them to consider this matter with the utmost urgency."