Some aid workers freed in Syria, risks to humanitarian effort grow

Reuters

* Six Red Cross workers and local volunteer seized on Sunday

* ICRC says four freed, awaits word on remaining three

* Says abduction disruptive and puts operations in jeopardy

* Millions of Syrians depend on humanitarian aid

By Oliver Holmes and Stephanie Nebehay

BEIRUT/GENEVA, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Four of seven aid workersabducted in Syria have been freed, the Red Cross said on Monday,but there was no word on the fate of the other three whosekidnapping highlights the risk to continuing humanitarian workin a country fragmented by war.

Robert Mardini, head of ICRC operations for the Near andMiddle East, said in a tweet the four were "safe and sound"after their abduction on Sunday.

ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson said they had been released inthe Idlib region, a near-lawless area in northeast Syria wherehundreds of militia operate, but did not elaborate on thecircumstances.

The ICRC was awaiting information on the remaining three, hesaid. The six Red Cross workers and local Red Crescent volunteerwere abducted by unidentified gunmen as they were returning toDamascus after a four-day mission to deliver medical supplies.

"Of course this type of incident is terrible because it isdisruptive and puts in jeopardy our operations in Syria,"Mardini told Reuters in Geneva hours before the partial release.

The ICRC remain committed to its relief operations in Syriawhere it is delivering food, water and medical supplies todisplaced civilians and trying to evacuate the wounded, he said.

Two and a half years into the civil war that grew out of acrackdown on anti-government protests, pro- and anti-governmentmilitia have fragmented the country into small fiefdoms.

Kidnappings of civilians, aid workers and journalists havespiked this year as groups linked to al Qaeda and opportunistcriminals have exploited the vacuum of power.

Some aid agencies have had to adapt their work, others arescaling back.

"The security situation has got much worse in recent months,especially in August, given the rise of the influence ofextremist groups directly linked to al Qaeda," said Jitkakovránková, who works for the Czech People in Need, one of thefew aid groups working in Aleppo city, in north Syria.

She said fighting between al Qaeda's linked groups and otherrebels as well as Kurdish groups along the Turkish border hadmade her organisation change the way aid enters Syria.

"There are now no open official border crossings forhumanitarian cargo in the areas of Idlib and Aleppogovernorates, where we work," she said, adding that People inNeed works with the Turkish border police and the Turkish RedCrescent to deliver aid through semi-official crossings, oftendirt roads on other parts of the frontier to get aid in.

FOREIGNERS STAY AWAY

The growing risk of kidnappings means that their foreignstaff have reduced their presence in Syria, she says."Previously, our foreign staff spent 80 percent of their time inSyria. Now they haven't been inside for four weeks."

People in Need continues to provide aid to Syrians, relyingon their local staff to deliver it, but kovránková says therapidly changing situation is making travel preparations and aiddelivery harder. "You have to be aware. It's not slowing theoperation but it's more difficult to get the operation done,"

Other aid groups have also adjusted operations to thechanging security situation.

Simon Ingram, a UNICEF spokesman, said that the U.N.Children's Fund is ""trying to operate in a more localisedmanner than we might have done in the past."

Aid workers say the Damascus government has also placedbarriers on working in Syria such as rejecting visas orpreventing convoys from entering certain areas.

Syrians complain that aid is not getting through to manyareas of the country, especially to residents living inrebel-held territory who say the government is restrictingaccess.

Opposition activists say that rebel-held towns around thecapital have been besieged by the army and say food and medicineare in very short supply.

Syrian authorities evacuated 5,000 women and children fromthe town of Mouadamiya over the weekend, state media said. TheICRC says around 10,000 civilians are still in the area, whichopposition activists say has been besieged by the government formonths.

The ICRC's UK spokesman Sean Maguire says the group has"good contacts within the layers of government authorities andthe armed opposition."

But, he said, "the armed opposition are very fractured andwe have to deal with groups of different shades". As territorychanges hands between different armed groups it is hard toidentify who is in control of certain areas.

Divided world powers have failed to halt the violence.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Monday for apeace conference on Syria "very soon" but said peace would notbe possible without a transition government to replace SyrianPresident Bashar al-Assad.

While Russia backed a June 2012 agreement calling for thecreation of a transitional government, it says Assad's exit frompower must not be a precondition for talks on peace or apolitical solution.

More than 100,000 people have been killed and the UnitedNations says that half of Syria's 23 million people will needhumanitarian aid by the end of 2013. More than 2 million havealready fled to neighbouring countries and millions more havebeen force to move, some multiple times, inside Syria.

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