Syria agrees to expand UN earthquake aid access

Two new border crossings have been opened between Turkey and Syria to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid following last week’s devastating earthquake, the United Nations (UN) has said.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad has agreed to allow UN deliveries to opposition-held northwest Syria through the crossings for three months, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced.

The crossings, at Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee, will be opened alongside the Bab al-Hawa border crossing which the UN has been using since 2014 to deliver aid to millions of people.

“Opening these crossing points – along with facilitating humanitarian access, accelerating visa approvals and easing travel between hubs – will allow more aid to go in, faster,” Mr Guterres said.

The move comes a week after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, killing more than 37,000 people and destroying homes and infrastructure.

Turkey earthquake – latest: Search efforts in Syria ‘about to end’

While humanitarian help has flooded to the region as a whole, the rebel-held northwest of Syria has received comparatively little aid. The first UN convoy only reached the area on Thursday.

There has been criticism of the amount of aid reaching the country – the worst-affected area is largely controlled by an Islamist group that is wary of shipments from government-held areas.

President Assad’s government – which has long opposed aid deliveries to the areas through its border with Turkey, describing it as a violation of its sovereignty – has blamed difficulties in rescue efforts on the impact of Western sanctions imposed on the country.

But opposition leaders have criticised the president and urged him to focus on getting help to the region.

Idlib, one of the last pockets of Syria holding out against President Assad’s regime, is held by an armed group called Hayat Tahir al Sham (HTS), headed by Abu Mohammed al Jolani.

He was once a member of al Qaeda before falling out with the group and forming his own, fighting not only al Qaeda remnants but Islamic State cells and the Assad regime as well.

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He’s still on a terrorist most-wanted list drawn up by a number of nations including the US.

He told Sky News, “the children being found under this rubble are not terrorists”, and called on the world to set aside politics and send help to the region.

Amid the criticism, UN aid chief Martin Griffiths met with the Syrian president in the capital Damascus on Monday.

Mr Griffiths had signalled at the weekend that he would seek Security Council authorisation for expanded access from Turkey if the Syrian government did not agree to it.

He also told Sky’s Kay Burley that extra border crossings from Turkey to Syria must be opened urgently “to save lives”, calling it “an open and shut case on humanitarian terms”.

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Syria’s UN Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh confirmed Syria would support the delivery of humanitarian aid through all possible points from inside Syria or across the border for three months.

He told reporters a council resolution was not needed because it was an agreement between Syria and the United Nations.

On Monday, the World Health Organisation said the earthquake had “overwhelmed everyone”.

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WHO ‘committed to supporting Syria’

Dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s executive director, said it was “misleading” to compare the impact in both countries, with so much relying on the “extent of the earthquake” and “population density”.

“There’s no question, certainly on the side of Turkey, there’s a matter of experience in terms of search and rescue, in terms of disaster response,” he said.

“They have had their fair share of disasters in the past – but I think what’s clear is that this disaster has overwhelmed everyone.”