* Agreements reached during visit by ICRC President
* Aid agency to resume prison visits stalled since Sept (Adds background, quotes)
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, April 5 (Reuters) - Syria has agreed to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to expand its humanitarian work in the country and seek a pause in the fighting when needed to evacuate the wounded, the agency said on Thursday.
The agreements, including a resumption of ICRC visits to detainees in prisons, were reached during talks in Damascus this week between ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger and senior officials including Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem.
“It should enable the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to meet increased humanitarian needs,” Kellenberger said in a statement issued at the end of his visit to Syria which began on Monday and included a stop in rural Deraa to deliver food.
“This means that we will have to rapidly build up our human resources and logistical capacity in Syria,” he said.
The ICRC is the only international agency to deploy aid workers in Syria, where the United Nations has been largely shut out. The ICRC currently deploys about 70 people in Syria, including 19 expatriates, who have delivered relief supplies to heavily hit cities including Homs, Idlib and Deraa.
ICRC officials would resume visits to detention centres, stalled since September, with a planned visit to detainees held at Aleppo central prison, the statement said. There was now an agreement on “procedures for visits to places of detention”.
Following Kellenberger’s talks with Assad in September, Syria opened its prisons for the first time to the ICRC whose officials visited detainees in Damascus central prison.
But visits have since stalled, with the ICRC insisting that its traditional terms, which include the right to interview prisoners in private and make follow-up visits, be respected.
The ICRC appealed on Feb. 21 to Syrian forces and opposition fighters for a daily two-hour humanitarian pause in the fighting. But this has never happened despite what the agency says have been positive signals from both sides.
Syrian officials and Kellenberger reached an agreement on a procedure under which the ICRC could request a humanitarian pause in the fighting in an area so as to evacuate the wounded and bring in supplies, spokesman Hicham Hassan said.
“This means that in areas affected by the fighting, whenever there is a need to evacuate the sick and wounded and deliver humanitarian aid, the ICRC will ask the foreign ministry to activate the clause,” he said.
Kellenberger held talks with Health Minister Dr. Wael al-Halki which “focused entirely” on the right of the wounded and the sick to have access to medical care and the obligation by all sides to respect medical workers, facilities and transport vehicles, the statement said.
The ICRC has previously said that it has been difficult to reach some people wounded to treat or evacuate them and that ambulances have come under gunfire or other attacks. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay Editing by Maria Golovnina)