June 5, 2012 / 12:50 PM / 5 years ago

U.N., Syria sign aid agreement but access key

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 assistance after 15 months of conflict, a senior U.N. aid official said on Tuesday.

The U.N. is to open four field offices - in 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."

The U.N. hosted 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 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.

Under the agreement, procedures are to be streamlined for granting visas to aid workers from nine U.N. agencies and seven international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Ging said.

But he was cautious and declined to give figures for 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."

Claus Sorensen, director-general of the European Humanitarian Office ECHO, 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 in Geneva.

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.

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.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Robert Woodward

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