Earthquake-hit Syria to open two more border crossings for aid delivery - UN

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Aftermath of the earthquake in the city of Jindayris, north-western Syria, on February 13, 2023.Image source, Getty Images
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Buildings were shattered in parts of north-western Syria, like Jindayris

Syria's government has agreed to allow the UN to use two more border crossings to deliver aid to opposition-held north-western areas devastated by last week's earthquakes, the UN says.

"It's going to make a big difference. We are now using just one crossing," a UN spokesman told the BBC.

But the White Helmets rescue group criticised the UN for waiting for President Bashar al-Assad's permission.

Many Syrians have been angry over the lack of aid for their war-torn nation.

Countries with friendly relations with Mr Assad, including Russia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, began flying supplies to government-controlled areas of Syria soon after the earthquakes struck nieghbouring southern Turkey eight days ago.

But the opposition-held north-west - where some 4.1 million people were relying on humanitarian assistance to survive even before the disaster - received no aid deliveries from the UN via Turkey until Thursday.

The UN blamed damage to roads leading to the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which is the only land route the UN Security Council has authorised it to use.

As of Monday, 58 aid lorries had crossed into the opposition enclave, carrying food, tents and medicines. However, they did not include the heavy machinery and other specialist equipment requested by the White Helmets, whose first responders are leading the rescue effort there.

The use of any other crossings with Turkey has been vetoed by Russia, a key ally of Mr Assad, and China since 2020. Until now, they have insisted that all other UN deliveries must go via Damascus and cross the front-lines, even though just 10 such convoys were approved during the whole of last year.

The UN made the announcement about using the Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai border crossings - which are both controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels - after high-level talks with President Assad in Damascus on Monday.

It said the crossings would initially be open for three months.

"Very shortly we will use the other two crossings," UN Secretary General António Guterres' spokesman Stéphane Dujarric told BBC Radio 4's World Tonight programme.

"We hope that the agreement will last as long as we need to use it. We will start using it as quickly as possible and I don't want to make any assumptions, the only thing I want to assume is that people will put politics aside wherever they stand in this conflict."

He did not give any further details on when the two crossings would open and defended the delay in waiting for the government's permission.

"It is our understanding that other aid organisations not affiliated with the UN have been using these border crossings. We have to operate within certain perimeters, that's the nature of the United Nations."

Mr Assad did not comment on the announcement. But when asked by a reporter why it had taken a week, his envoy to the UN, Bassam al-Sabbagh, replied: "Why are you asking me?... We are not the one controlling these borders."

The head of the White Helmets accused Mr Assad of a "cynical move that has come far too late" and criticised the UN's decision to seek his approval.

"The UN's insistence on waiting for the Syrian regime's permission - the very regime that has bombed, gassed, starved, forcibly displaced and imprisoned millions of Syrians - is unforgivable," he wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.

"It is no secret that the Syrian regime is not a credible partner in addressing the suffering of all Syrians in a neutral and impartial manner."

Mr Saleh separately told Reuters news agency that the search operation for survivors underneath the rubble of collapsed buildings in the north-west was about to come to a close.

"The indications we have are that there are not any [survivors], but we are trying to do our final checks and on all sites," he said.

The White Helmets have so far reported 2,274 deaths and 12,400 injuries across the north-west.

Satellite photographs released by Maxar on Monday showed the devastation in Jindayris, a town close to the Turkish border where they say more than 200 buildings have been completely destroyed.

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The White Helmets have recovered at least 517 bodies in Jindayris and described the situation there as "catastrophic".

The government has reported 1,414 deaths and 2,349 injuries across its territory.

Aleppo province was badly affected, with more than 200,000 people left homeless, according to the UN.