Middle East

Syria conflict: UN reports failure of first aid air-drop

Sacks of WFP aid at a warehouse in Kafr Batna, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus (23 February 2016) Image copyright AFP
Image caption The UN and its partners have delivered aid by land to more than 110,000 people under siege

A UN agency has admitted that its first attempt to air-drop humanitarian aid to Syrians from high altitude largely failed but it promised to keep trying.

Of 21 pallets dropped over the eastern city of Deir al-Zour on Wednesday, 10 were unaccounted for, seven landed in no-man's land and four were damaged.

Some 200,000 civilians are trapped in a government-held area of the city, besieged by Islamic State militants.

The air-drop is part of a larger effort to deliver desperately-needed aid.

Initially, the UN said reports from Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) teams on the ground in Deir al-Zour suggested that the first cargo of 21 tonnes of aid dropped over the city had landed in the target area as planned.

However, the World Food Programme later issued a statement saying the operation "faced technical difficulties and we are debriefing crew and partners in Deir al-Zour to make necessary adjustments".

"High-altitude drops are extremely challenging to carry out and take more than one trial to develop full accuracy," it added.

On Thursday, a WFP spokesman confirmed that all the 21 pallets dropped by parachute were damaged, went off-target or were unaccounted for.

Last month, UN humanitarian agencies warned that the civilians living in the besieged western side of Deir al-Zour, most of whom are women and children, were facing sharply deteriorating conditions.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The divided city of Deir al-Zour has been devastated by years of fighting

Residents needed immediate and urgent humanitarian assistance, particularly food, nutrition and health supplies, and there were reports of severe cases of malnutrition and deaths due to starvation, they said.

While the Syrian government's stocks continue to provide bread, there are very limited supplies as there has been limited humanitarian or commercial access to the eastern city.

UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council on Wednesday that since 17 February, the UN and its partners had reached 110,000 people in besieged areas, and had approval to reach a further 230,000 people, including through the air drops in Deir al-Zour. They are still waiting for approval an additional 170,000.

He also welcomed the plan announced by the US and Russia for a nationwide cessation of hostilities scheduled to come into effect at 22:00 GMT on Friday.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Syria's government and opposition have accepted the plan for a cessation of hostilities

Syria's main opposition umbrella group said late on Wednesday that it was ready for a two-week truce to test the government's commitment to the plan.

But the High Negotiations Committee objected to Russia being a guarantor because of the air campaign it has conducted in support of President Bashar al-Assad since September.

The HNC also expressed concern that Moscow and Damascus would continue targeting rebels allied to the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist group that along with IS will be excluded from the cessation of hostilities.

The Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG), a militia that controls territory in northern Syria near the Turkish border, said on Thursday that it would respect the truce, but reserve the right to retaliate if attacked.

The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, meanwhile said he would be announcing the date for the next round of peace talks in Geneva on Friday.