U.N. says Syria being systematically destroyed by own people

BEIRUT Wed Jan 23, 2013 1:37am IST

Free Syrian Army fighters and residents are seen near buildings damaged after what activists say were missiles fired by Syrian Air Force fighter jets loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Erbeen, near Damascus January 21, 2013, in this picture provided by Shaam News Network. Picture taken January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Maawia Al-Naser/Shaam News Network/Handout

Free Syrian Army fighters and residents are seen near buildings damaged after what activists say were missiles fired by Syrian Air Force fighter jets loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Erbeen, near Damascus January 21, 2013, in this picture provided by Shaam News Network. Picture taken January 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Maawia Al-Naser/Shaam News Network/Handout

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria is being systematically destroyed by its own people, a senior U.N. relief official said on Tuesday after returning from a four-day visit to the civil war-wracked country.

Peaceful street demonstrations seeking democratic reform in March 2011 were met with a bloody military crackdown and escalated into an armed uprising aimed at toppling President Bashar al-Assad. More than 60,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in Syria over 22 months of conflict.

"I didn't realise until I entered the country and moving around just how much has been destroyed already of the very vital infrastructure for the functioning of a society," John Ging, operations director at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said.

"It is a country being systematically destroyed by its own people on all sides," he told a news conference in Beirut, sitting alongside a team of emergency directors from seven U.N. agencies who went to Syria to negotiate for greater aid access with government authorities and rebel forces.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi were deeply disturbed by the continued bloodshed, the U.N. press office said in a statement on Monday.

"Both expressed deep disappointment and anguish at the appalling levels of killing and destruction carried out by both the government and the opposition, fuelled by outside powers providing weaponry to both sides," it said.

"They also expressed their consternation about the lack of a unified international posture that could lead to a transition as agreed at Geneva last June and put an end to the desperate suffering of the Syrian people."

Ging said the vast majority of people in need in Syria were being reached by humanitarian agencies. The United Nations does not distribute aid directly but in partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other domestic groups.

But this method has been criticised by opposition groups who say that working through government-affiliated groups effectively cuts off rebel-held areas of the country - which face heavy shelling and air strikes - from emergency aid.

Earlier this month the Syrian government provided a list of 110 additional local aid agencies to the United Nations to hook up with. Ging said the U.N. had vetted 45 agencies to work with but without specifying whether any operated in rebel-held areas.

"Our single objective is to reach everybody, everywhere."

Ging and his team visited the battle-scarred town of Talbiseh in Homs province on Monday and said a four-hour ceasefire was negotiated with local authorities and rebels so that aid could be delivered to a rebel-controlled zone.

"We crossed the conflict line," he said. "That movement had to be coordinated and agreed upon by both sides. We very much welcome that and we very much, very much, hope that if it can be done for four hours of our mission, why can't it be extended for the Syrian people by the leaderships on both sides."

(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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