UPDATE 4-Assad gives Red Cross chief "positive" pledges on Syria aid
* Red Cross president meets Syrian leader for 45 minutes
* They discuss delivery of aid to civilians, prison visits
* Red Cross says Assad gave "positive commitments"
* Number of people fleeing Syria rose sharply last month, U.N. says
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad promised on Tuesday to allow the Red Cross to expand its humanitarian operations in his country which is gripped by a 17-month insurgency that forced more than 100,000 people to flee last month alone.
Aid agencies are trying to beef up relief operations across Syria where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says needs have grown "exponentially" in recent weeks due to the escalation of fighting that has cut off civilians from basic services and life-saving supplies.
Red Cross President Peter Maurer met the Syrian leader in Damascus for 45 minutes and they discussed improving the delivery of aid to civilians as well as resuming prison visits which have stalled since May, the ICRC said.
Maurer stressed the need for the wounded to have quick access to health care and to speed up imports of medical supplies, food and equipment for repairing water supply systems, said Hicham Hassan, spokesman for the ICRC.
"President Assad gave positive commitments to our requests," Hassan said, declining to give details.
Syrian television quoted Assad as telling Maurer that Syria welcomed the ICRC's work "as long as it is carried out in an independent and neutral way".
But diplomats cast doubt on whether Assad will grant unfettered access to needy civilians, especially those in areas sympathetic to the revolt which are being pounded by his troops.
"The commitments from Assad are a necessary step but far more important is whether those commitments are realised in practice," a Western diplomatic source told Reuters. "The ICRC experience to date doesn't give us too much cause for optimism."
Activists reported clashes and shelling across Syria on Tuesday, including heavy fighting between government forces and rebels in many suburbs outside the capital of Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bodies of six men were found in the southern neighbourhood of Tadamon, their hands were bound and there were signs of torture.
Battles and bombardment raged on in the country's economic hub Aleppo and nearby towns, local activists said. Many homes had collapsed due to shelling, they said.
The talks came as a U.N. official said the number of people fleeing Syria had risen sharply in August, with more than 100,000 seeking asylum in surrounding countries - the highest monthly total during the 17-month-old uprising against Assad.
"It is quite an astonishing number and points to a significant escalation in the refugee movement and people seeking asylum. It probably points to a very precarious and violent situation inside the country," Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency told a news briefing.
The figure represented a tripling of the 35,000 who fled in July and a significant proportion of the overall total of 235,368 Syrian refugees who have registered in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey during the conflict, the UNHCR said.
"The numbers over the last few months have been so dramatic ... Given this pattern it does not appear to be abating and we really do need to plan for the worst," UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes told Reuters.
In Jordan, where refugees are arriving at the rate of 1,000 a day, Za'atri camp now holds 23,400 Syrians living in desert conditions and authorities are bracing for a larger influx.
The ICRC said at the start of Maurer's three-day trip on Monday that it would tackle the "rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation" in Syria and difficulties facing aid workers in the country.
About 1.2 million people have been displaced within Syria during the conflict, many of them staying in public buildings.
The ICRC has 50 foreign and Syrian aid workers in the country, but all have been confined to Damascus since late July due to heavy fighting.
The agency was not able to send out any aid convoys for more than two weeks, but did manage to send some food and other relief supplies to rural Damascus and Homs late last week.
Maurer, a former Swiss diplomat who took over as president of the aid organisation on July 1, is scheduled to meet Interior Minister General Mohamad Ibrahim on Wednesday.
Maurer has said he would continue the ICRC's efforts to gain access to Syria's detention centres - which rights groups say hold tens of thousands of people rounded up during the conflict.
Syria opened its prisons to the ICRC for the first time almost exactly a year ago under a deal secured by Maurer's predecessor Jakob Kellenberger on the first of his three trips there.
ICRC officials were only able to visit central prisons in Damascus last September and Aleppo in May, despite an agreement on its access to all facilities run by the interior ministry.
It was not just an issue of Syrian authorities granting access to detention facilities, but the terms have to be acceptable to the ICRC, which requires being able to interview inmates in private, the Western diplomatic source said.
"Syria has been very unwilling to grant access and independence to the ICRC once they get in," he said.
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