Assad makes Red Cross pledge


Syrian president Bashar al-Assad today promised to allow the Red Cross to expand its humanitarian operations in his country which is gripped by a 17-month insurgency that forced more than 100,000 people to flee last month alone.

Aid agencies are trying to beef up relief operations across Syria where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says needs have grown "exponentially" in recent weeks due to the escalation of fighting that has cut off civilians from basic services and life-saving supplies.

Red Cross president Peter Maurer met the Syrian leader in Damascus for 45 minutes and they discussed improving the delivery of aid to civilians as well as resuming prison visits which have stalled since May, the ICRC said.

Mr Maurer stressed the need for the wounded to have quick access to health care and to speed up imports of medical supplies, food and equipment for repairing water supply systems, said Hicham Hassan, spokesman for the ICRC.

"President Assad gave positive commitments to our requests," Mr Hassan said, declining to give details. Syrian television quoted Dr Assad as telling Mr Maurer that Syria "welcomes the work which the Committee (ICRC) carries out on Syrian territory as long as it is carried out in an independent and neutral way".

Activists reported clashes and shelling across Syria today, including heavy fighting between government forces and rebels in many suburbs outside the capital of Damascus.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bodies of six men were found in the southern neighbourhood of Tadamon, their hands were bound and there were signs of torture.

Battles and bombardment raged on in the country's economic hub Aleppo and nearby towns, local activists said. Many homes had collapsed due to shelling, they said.

Mr Maurer also went to Muadamiya, a Damascus suburb, where he visited a medical centre of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, meeting patients and volunteers, and later visited a school sheltering displaced there.

Residents later reported clashes in Muadamiya.

The talks came as a UN official said the number of people fleeing Syria had risen sharply in August, with more than 100,000 seeking asylum in surrounding countries - the highest monthly total during the 17-month-old uprising against Dr Assad.

"It is quite an astonishing number and points to a significant escalation in the refugee movement and people seeking asylum. It probably points to a very precarious and violent situation inside the country," Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency told a news briefing.

The figure represented a tripling of the 35,000 who fled in July and a significant proportion of the overall total of 235,368 Syrian refugees who have registered in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey during the conflict, the UNHCR said.

"The numbers over the last few months have been so dramatic ... Given this pattern it does not appear to be abating and we really do need to plan for the worst," UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes said.