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Group calls for humanitarian access in Syria

BEIRUT — A general director of Doctors Without Borders called Tuesday for greater access for humanitarian aid to Syrians suffering in their country’s civil war, and urged the international community to show the same urgency to help them as it did to address dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.

The Syrian conflict, which began as a largely peaceful uprising against President Bashar Assad in March 2011, has triggered a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale, killing more than 100,000 people, driving nearly 7 million more from their homes and devastating the nation’s cities and towns. With the country now carved up into rebel- and regime-controlled areas, providing desperately needed food and medical aid has become a colossal — and dangerous — task.

“You have an industrial-scale war, but you have a very kind of small-scale humanitarian response,” said Christopher Stokes, a general director for Doctors Without Borders. “There is a recognition that greater humanitarian access is needed for life-saving assistance, but at the same time we don’t see the mobilization.”

Stokes said the aid community has long been told that it’s impossible to grant full access to all regions affected by the fighting, and that “one side is always blaming the other” for the impasse.

But the recent agreement to grant international inspectors unfettered access to every site linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program “has shown is that it is possible, if the international political willingness is there, to grant access and free movement to aid agencies to go into these enclaves,” Stokes said.

“Cease-fires could be organized as was done to allow chemical weapons inspectors in, they could be organized to allow in medical convoys,” he said.

Doctors Without Borders says it currently runs six field hospitals in rebel-held areas, and supports 70 medical facilities in contested areas of the country and regions controlled by the government or the rebels.

The Syrian government has not granted the group permission to work in the country, so it is forced to bring in supplies surreptitiously — a high-risk job that Stokes said has become harder. In the past, it would take a few days to get supplies brought in from abroad into the clinics, he said, whereas now it can take weeks. “There are more checkpoints, and it’s harder and harder to get supplies in,” he said.

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