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Any escalation of the Syrian crisis in response to last week's reported chemical weapons attack will aggravate civilian suffering, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday, as UNESCO warned that Syria's rich cultural heritage is being destroyed and archaeological sites looted.
The ICRC, an independent humanitarian agency, said it was appalled by reports of a poison gas attack on Aug. 21 that left hundreds dead -- which the U.S. said was carried out by President Bashar al-Assad's regime. A U.N. investigation at the site of the alleged attack is ongoing. The ICRC urged warring parties in Syria's two-year civil war to respect the absolute ban on chemical weapons use under international law.
Magne Barth, head of the ICRC's delegation in Syria, said proposed Western military action would "likely trigger more displacement and add to humanitarian needs, which are already immense." Some 2 million people have already fled Syria, including 1 million children. Human rights groups estimate that 100,000 people have been killed since the war began.
Areas plagued by heavy fighting -- including the countryside around Damascus, eastern Aleppo and Deir Ezzor province -- are also reeling from breakdowns of basic services such as water, electricity and garbage collection, the ICRC said in a statement.
"In large parts of rural Damascus for example, people are dying because they lack medical supplies and because there are not enough medical personnel to attend to them," said Magne Barth, head of the ICRC's delegation in the country. "They also go hungry because aid can't get through to them on a regular basis."
The United Nations says that in the besieged areas of Damascus and its outskirts, 600,000 people are believed to be in a critical situation due to frequent power cuts, lack of water supplies and shortages of basic goods.
In response to water needs, ICRC water engineers are trying to repair a damaged pipeline in Hama that serves some 1.3 million people, spokeswoman Dibeh Fakhr said. The pipeline in al-Waar, damaged in heavy clashes about two weeks ago, brings water from Homs to Hama.
The Geneva-based ICRC has tried to reach civilians trapped in the old city of Homs since early July, but it says it has been blocked by Syrian government authorities.
And as the world debates about how to prevent more civilian deaths in Syria, UNESCO warned on Thursday that a rich cultural heritage is being devastated by the conflict, which began in March 2011.
Clashes between opposition groups and government forces have damaged historical sites and buildings throughout the country, from Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque to the Crac des Chevaliers castle dating from the 13th century Crusades.
But the most irreversible damage comes from the illegal looting of artifacts from archaeological sites for export, said the U.N. cultural arm's assistant director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin.
"We had it in Iraq, we had it in Afghanistan, in Libya, in Mali," Bandarin said. "It is a typical by-product of war. Unfortunately it's very difficult to stop."
Organized, armed gangs sometimes involving hundreds of hired men who threaten local residents against retaliation are taking advantage of a lack of security at many archaeological digging sites.
A comparison of satellite images from before the crisis and today at Apamea, known for its extensive Hellenistic ruins, shows clearly the scale of looting and destruction, UNESCO said.
Precious objects have been identified for sale in Beirut and international police agency Interpol has confiscated 18 Syrian mosaics and 73 other artifacts at the Lebanese border, the agency said. It has appealed to neighboring countries to better control their borders against the trafficking of art.
Al Jazeera and wire services
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