Aid Workers Enter Remote Syria Camp

Aid Workers Enter Remote Syria Camp

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- U.N. officials and volunteers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent offered children vaccinations and distributed desperately needed aid on Sunday, the first such assistance to reach thousands in a remote camp for the displaced on Syria's border with Jordan since January.

Residents said that humanitarians from international organizations entered their desolate camp for the first time since it was set up over three years ago, where nearly 50,000 have been stranded in limbo.

Fadwa Baroud of the United Nations Office of the Resident Coordinator said it was the first time a U.N. aid convoy had accessed Rukban camp from inside Syria.

Before January, aid only reached the camp from Jordan and aid workers were barred from accessing the camp out of security concerns.

The Arab Syrian Red Crescent and the United Nations posted pictures of staff unloading trucks of life-saving assistance and administering vaccines on children in the camp.

Residents posed with the aid trucks driving through the desolate camp, where 10,000 children are expected to be vaccinated.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting against Islamic State militants said its local allies, a Syrian armed group known as Maghawir al-Thawra, provided security for the aid convoys.

Resident Abdul-Fatah al-Khaled, who also runs a camp school, said aid workers, including U.N. staff, were on the ground at the camp for the first time.

"Before (January) the aid used to be distributed from the Jordanian side over the sand berms" or by rebel groups who resided in the camp, al-Khaled said.

Al-Khaled said distribution of food and winter clothes began late Saturday.

People started gathering in Rukban three years ago, fleeing IS militants and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition, Russia and Syria. Jordan sealed its border and stopped regular aid deliveries in 2016 after a cross-border IS attack that killed seven Jordanian soldiers. The attack, and other violence, fueled accusations that militants were hiding among camp residents and raised concern that deteriorating humanitarian conditions amounted to collective punishment.

The last aid delivery from Jordan was in January, leaving the camp's residents dependent on goods largely smuggled from government-held areas. The situation sharply deteriorated after the Syrian government blocked supply routes last month following a botched reconciliation deal with rebel groups in the area.

Russia, a close ally of the Syrian government, has blamed the U.S. for the deterioration of the situation in Rukban, which is within a 55-square kilometer (20 sq. mile) "deconfliction zone" set up by U.S. forces stationed in the nearby Tanf military base.

The U.S.-led coalition has denied such allegations and blamed Russia and the Syrian government instead.

"We continue to stand ready to enable future delivery of U.N. humanitarian relief to the people of Rukban until they are able to return home as we pursue our mission of an enduring defeat of (IS)," said Maj. Gen. (UK) Christopher Ghika, a deputy commander for the U.S.-led Coalition.

The U.N. said aid deliveries would continue for up to four days, describing the condition in the camp as "critical" with reported shortages of basic commodities, protection concerns, and increasing violence.

At least four people have died in the past month due to malnutrition and lack of medical care as regional powers traded blame.

Separately on Sunday, the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the pro-government daily Al-Watan that Syria would cooperate with the new U.N. envoy Geir Pederson if he avoids the "methods" of his predecessor, commits to the country's territorial integrity and stops supporting "terrorists, as his predecessor did."

The government regularly refers to the opposition as "terrorists."

Pedersen succeeds Staffan de Mistura, who steps down this month after four years of unsuccessful peace efforts.

The conflict, now in its eighth year, has killed more than 400,000 people, displaced half of the country's population and left entire neighborhoods and towns in ruins.

De Mistura's latest efforts focused on negotiating a joint government-opposition committee to draft a new Syrian constitution. The government has largely rejected those efforts, saying they amounted to meddling in its internal affairs.