GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations is struggling to deliver humanitarian aid to an estimated 1 million people in Syria because of visa delays and the difficulty in reaching areas ravaged by fighting, U.N. and European Union officials said on Tuesday.
"We have the feeling that we are running behind a train of increasing speed - the train of humanitarian suffering. So while some progress has been achieved, the needs are deepening by the day, there is a need to accelerate," Claus Sorensen, Director-General of the European Humanitarian Office ECHO, told Reuters.
The U.N. is hosting the Syrian Humanitarian Forum, the third in a series, in Geneva to try to expand access to hungry, sick or wounded civilians in the country reeling from 15 months of 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 major aid operation. The plan was draw up after an assessment mission carried out with Syrian officials in March.
Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, Syria's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, attended the closed-door talks. Also present was Radhouane Nouicer, U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator, who has been negotiating better access with Syrian authorities since the last forum on April 20.
"It's true that Radhouane Nouicer has had very intense contacts with the Syrian government, and he is extracting positive news, but it simply doesn't go fast enough," Sorensen said in an interview before the meeting began.
"The main bottlenecks are visas for international aid workers, access to the different hotspots and the possibility to control the delivery of goods," Sorensen said.
Progress has been slow, although the U.N. is now due to establish field presences in four locations - Deraa, Deir al-Zor, Homs and Idlib -- according to a U.N. document prepared for the meeting, obtained by Reuters.
"Reconnaissance missions for the establishment of these presences were deployed on June 3 (Sunday)," it said.
Once set up, the U.N. teams will work closely with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to "assess needs, deliver relief items and monitor the impact of the response", it said.
"The immediate focus will be on the delivery of food, medicine, hygiene kits, blankets, kitchen sets and school repairs."
The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) provided food supplies to 250,000 people in Syria as of mid-May and aims to reach 500,000 by mid-June, the latest WFP report said.
Volunteers from the Syrian Red Crescent do the actual distributions of WFP family food baskets, which contain rice, bulgur, pasta, cooking oil, sugar and canned meat.
Media reports have indicated bread shortages in Syria due to the financial sanctions and a projected poor harvest, the WFP report said.
"WFP has also observed some bread shortages in some areas at the time of armed activities but indications so far are that bread is still widely available," it said.
The agency was preparing to carry out a joint assessment of food security with Syrian authorities in June, it added.
The EU needs to be satisfied that checks on relief deliveries are in place to ensure the right people get goods, Sorensen said, noting that he was accountable to taxpayers.
"This is one of the big bottlenecks, we need guarantees.
"We have seen every time we have a meeting there is some progress. I would not use the word breakthrough, I think it's the politics of small steps - some may say, stalling - but I prefer to say that we will probably have some small steps forward, but the situation is dramatic," he said.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Signe Nissen; Editing by Robert Woodward