UN humanitarian chief in Syria for talks

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Associated Press

Posted on January 27, 2013 at 11:32 AM

Updated Sunday, Jan 27 at 8:34 PM

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The United Nations humanitarian chief was in Damascus on Sunday for talks with Syrian officials about the nation's conflict, which has forced millions of people from their homes, destroyed the country's cities and created food and fuel shortages.

Valerie Amos did not make any public remarks upon her arrival in Damascus on Sunday for a two-day visit, but at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, she said world powers had not done enough to lessen Syrian suffering.

"The humanitarian situation in Syria is already catastrophic and it's clearly getting worse," she said. "What we are seeing now are the consequences of the failure of the international community to unite to resolve the crisis."

The U.N. says more than 60,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict in March 2011.

Living conditions have deteriorated across Syria during the 22-month conflict, which began with political protests that escalated into a civil war with scores of rebel groups battling President Bashar Assad's forces. Entire towns and neighborhoods have been damaged in the fighting, and more than 2 million people are internally displaced, with another 650,000 seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

Some areas face food shortages, and even areas that have been spared large-scale violence like Damascus lack sufficient quantities of gasoline, heating oil and cooking gas.

On Friday, the U.N. announced it was preparing to send $10 million in new U.S. aid to help alleviate hunger in northern Syria.

World powers remain divided on how to solve the crisis. The U.S. and many Arab and European countries have called on Assad to step down, while Russia, China and Iran refuse any pressure from outside that seeks to hasten the regime's fall.

On Saturday, Iran made its strongest warning to date that it could intervene militarily to help Assad's regime.

As quoted by the semiofficial Mehr news agency, an aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Syria held a key position among a group of Middle Eastern powers opposed to U.S. and Israeli influence in the region.

"Syria plays a very key role in supporting or, God forbid, destabilizing the resistance front," said Ali Akbar Velayati. "For this same reason, (an) attack on Syria is considered (an) attack on Iran and Iran's allies."

Iran is Syria's strongest ally in the Middle East, and has provided Assad's government with military and political backing for years. In September, the top commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, said the elite unit had high-level advisers in Syria. Iran also is believed to be sending weapons and money to Syria.

A senior Israeli Cabinet minister warned on Sunday that Israeli could attack sites in Syria if Assad's regime transferred chemical weapons to the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon.

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom confirmed to Israel's Army Radio that top security officials held a special meeting last week to discuss Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.

"It would be crossing a line that would demand a different approach, including even action," he said. Asked whether this might mean a pre-emptive attack, he said: "We will have to make the decisions."

Also on Sunday, Syria announced that it would drop legal proceedings against opposition figures who returned to the country to participate in a "national dialogue" called for by Assad during a recent speech.

Syria's Higher Judicial Council announced the decision in a statement carried by the state news agency. The report gave no further details.

Assad proposed the national dialogue as part of his plan to end the country's crisis as laid out in a high-profile speech this month at the Damascus Opera House.

In the same speech, however, he vowed to keep fighting and referred the opposition as criminals and terrorists — making it unlikely anyone will take their chances on the amnesty offer.

Tens of thousands of activists, their family members and opposition supporters remain jailed by the regime, according to international rights groups.

Opposition leaders have repeatedly rejected any talks that include Assad, insisting he must step down.

Violence continued around Syria on Sunday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes and government airstrikes in neighborhoods east and south of Damascus as well as elsewhere. At least seven people died in attacks in the suburbs, and three others died after a shell landed in the city's southern Yarmouk district.

The group, which relies on contacts throughout Syria, also reported clashes near a train station in southwestern Qadam neighborhood where four rebel fighters and one woman were killed.

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Hubbard reported from Beirut. AP writer Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed.

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