BEIRUT | Mon Nov 4, 2013 10:43am EST
(Reuters) – The Syrian government promised on Monday to ensure delivery of vaccinations and humanitarian aid across the country, after an outbreak of polio in the northeast and warnings of malnutrition in areas under military siege.
Twenty-two children in Deir al-Zor province bordering Iraq were left paralyzed last month. The polio virus has been confirmed so far in 10 of them, and experts say it could spread quickly across the region.
The outbreak was confirmed as a previously planned immunization campaign was being launched to vaccinate 1.6 million children against polio, measles, mumps and rubella, in both government-controlled and contested areas of Syria.
“We want vaccinations to reach every Syrian child wherever they are – either in a conflict zone or an area where the Syrian army is present,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told a televised news conference in Damascus.
“This must reach every Syrian child and we pledge this (will happen), and we will grant every opportunity to humanitarian organizations to reach every Syrian child.”
He did not say how the government, fighting a 2-1/2-year-old war with rebels battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad, could guarantee delivery of supplies. But his comments appeared aimed at pinning the blame for any failure on the rebel camp.
Mekdad also said the government was committed to delivering humanitarian aid to all parts of Syria, mentioning the cities of Aleppo, al-Hasakah, Idlib and Deraa where he said civilians were besieged by rebels.
He said 60,000 residents of the two Shi’ite towns of Nubl and Zahra, surrounded by rebel forces in Aleppo province, had been cut off from aid supplies.
Opposition activists, however, say government forces are using siege and starvation as a military tactic in rebel-held areas around Damascus such as Mouadamiya and Ghouta, leading to cases of malnutrition and widespread hunger.
Mekdad accused rebels of using civilians in those areas as human shields and said rebels had shot at an aid convoy sent to Mouadamiya. He said a total of 4,500 people had been allowed to leave Mouadamiya, much of which is in ruins after months of bombardment.
Activists said on Thursday at least 230 men who were part of the most recent evacuation were arrested as they left Mouadamiya last week and taken to an Air Force Intelligence compound.
(Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon)