EU to host conference on quake aid as UN official says 'Put politics aside'

AFP , Wednesday 8 Feb 2023

The EU plans to host a donors conference in March to mobilise international aid for Syria and Turkey to deal with the devastating impact of this week's earthquake, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday as a leading United Nations official on Wednesday called for the facilitation of aid access to rebel-held areas in Syria's northwest, warning that relief stocks will soon be depleted.

Syria Earthquake
Rescuers and residents search through the rubble of collapsed buildings in the town of Harem near the Turkish border, Idlib province, Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. AP


"We are now racing against the clock to save lives together. Soon we will provide relief aid, together. Turkiye and Syria can count on the EU," von der Leyen wrote on Twitter.

The EU said the conference would be held early next month in Brussels in coordination with Turkish authorities "to mobilise funds from the international community in support for the people" of both countries.

"No one should be left alone when a tragedy like this hits a people," von der Leyen said in a statement.

The event is aimed at coordinating the international response to the disaster and "will be open to EU Member States, neighbouring countries, UN members" and international lenders, the bloc said.

The European Union was swift to dispatch rescue teams to Turkey after the massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country on Monday close to the border with Syria.

But it initially offered only minimal assistance to Syria through existing humanitarian programmes because of EU sanctions imposed since 2011 on the government of President Bashar al-Assad in response to his brutal crackdown on protesters, which spiralled into a civil war.

On Wednesday, Damascus made an official plea to the EU for help, the bloc's commissioner for crisis management said.

Now that Damascus has made the move, through the EU's Civil Protection Mechanism that coordinates aid, Janez Lenarcic said the commission was asking European countries "to respond favourably to this request".

The participants in the EU mechanism comprise the 27 EU countries plus eight neighbouring non-EU nations that include Norway and Turkey.

Rebel-held zones near Turkey's border, hard hit by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck on Monday, cannot receive aid from government-held parts of Syria without Damascus's authorisation.

"Put politics aside and let us do our humanitarian work," the UN's resident Syria coordinator El-Mostafa Benlamlih said in an interview with AFP, warning: "We can't afford to wait and negotiate. By the time we negotiate, it's done, it's finished."

Monday's earthquake devastated entire sections of major cities in Turkey and Syria, killing more than 11,700 people, injuring thousands more and leaving many more without shelter in the winter cold.

In Syria alone, at least 2,662 people have been killed, according to the government and rescuers in rebel-held areas.

Speaking to AFP from Damascus, Benlamlih said the UN had to negotiate for access.

"We still have to negotiate and we still have to get access to, for example, the northwest area, it's not easy," he said.

No fresh deliveries have been sent from within Syria in about three weeks, according to the UN official.

The UN has some stocks in the area, enough to feed 100,000 people for one week, he said.

"Once it's depleted, we need to replenish and this is my call," he said.

"We dont have time to talk politics or negotiate. We need to have open access."

On Tuesday, the UN said the sole border crossing used to shuttle life-saving aid from Turkey into conflict-ravaged Syria has seen its operations disrupted.

"The road that is leading to the crossing has been damaged, and that's temporarily disrupted our ability to fully use it," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN secretary general.

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