GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria has agreed to allow the United Nations and international agencies to expand humanitarian operations in the country, where at least 1 million people need urgent assistance after 15 months of conflict, a senior U.N. aid official said on Tuesday.
The U.N. is to open field offices in four violence-plagued provinces - Deraa, Deir al-Zor, Homs and Idlib -- and Syrian officials have pledged to accelerate the granting of visas for aid workers and customs clearance for relief goods, he said.
"This agreement was secured in Damascus with the government there, in writing," John Ging, who chaired the closed-door Syrian Humanitarian Forum, told reporters in Geneva.
"Freedom of movement, unimpeded access for humanitarian action within Syria, is what it's all about now. The good faith of the (Syrian) government will be tested on this issue today, tomorrow and every day."
At least 500,000 Syrians are internally displaced in their country and many have lost their homes, according to the Syrian Red Crescent. More than 78,000 Syrians have fled to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the U.N. refugee agency says.
The United Nations hosted the one-day Syrian Humanitarian Forum, the third in a series, to try to expand access to hungry, sick or wounded civilians in the country reeling from an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
U.N. aid agencies have been largely shut out of Syria but have tried for months to launch a large-scale aid operation. The plan, drawn up after an assessment mission carried out with Syrian officials in March, had stalled since.
"What is crystal clear with one million people in need is there is a very big gap between the response we are currently conducting and those needs on the ground," Ging said.
Under the agreement, procedures are to be streamlined for giving visas to aid workers from nine U.N. agencies and seven international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) already helping Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Syria, Ging said.
But he declined to reveal the number of aid workers to be deployed or a timetable, saying details were still being discussed with Syrian officials.
"We have achieved progress, but whether it is a breakthrough will be determined in coming days," Ging said. "We want to see people (aid workers) on the ground immediately because without people on the ground you don't have capacity to deliver."
Advance teams are going to the four provinces this week.
Kelly Clements, Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, told a separate news briefing: "This is a key portion related to the portion of the Annan plan on free and unimpeded access for humanitarian organisations and operations.
"Words on paper are one thing, we need to see action now."
Clements, asked whether progress in delivering aid was expected to improve political or security conditions, replied: "We often say as humanitarians that humanitarian aid is no band-aid for a political solution...It's a short-term fix."
Asked about sparing civilians from the effects of sanctions imposed by Western powers on Syria, she said: "There's always been a humanitarian assistance 'carve-out' in terms of sanctions. That is something that I expect would continue."
Syria's government banned 17 Western diplomats and its helicopter gunships pounded rebels in a coastal province on Tuesday as Assad defied international pressure to halt the repression of an uprising against his rule.
Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, Syria's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, attended the humanitarian talks.
Claus Sorensen, director-general of the European Humanitarian Office ECHO, cautiously welcomed the agreement.
"Now it's about getting it done. We don't have a lot of time because I have a feeling that we are running behind an accelerating humanitarian crisis," he told reporters.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Robert Woodward