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Syrian government accused of blocking aid to war-ravaged areas

Aid agencies are being denied border crossings, says rights group, as UN body warns of dangerous polio outbreak

A leading human rights group accused Syria's government Friday of blocking aid to war-torn areas by denying permission to use rebel-held border crossings, as an U.N. agency warned of a historically challenging outbreak of polio in the country.

Human Rights Watch said Syria allowed aid organizations to use only the one border crossing with Turkey that remains in government control, near the far northern city of Qamishli. The crossing was opened to aid supplies earlier this month.

United Nations agencies generally do not cross borders without government permission, even if a government isn't in control of a certain area or crossing. In three years of conflict, opposition fighters have seized control of a series of border crossings around the country.

"It's an outrage that Syria insists that people within walking distance of the Turkish border can't get assistance by the closest and safest route," Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch said agencies needed to use rebel-held crossings with Turkey and Jordan to reach some 3 million Syrians in opposition areas who urgently need humanitarian aid, according to figures issued by the U.N.

So far, U.N. partner groups were given permission to make three trips to rebel-held areas from Qamishli, a process that involved crossing dozens of military and rebel checkpoints and taking routes sometimes 10 times as long, HRW said. Houry described the situation as unworkable.

Aid groups would need to make only a 12- to 18-mile trek to reach places where Syrians desperately need assistance if they could get government permission, Houry said. He said the government's refusal underscored a Syrian government policy of "punishing civilians in opposition-held areas."

There was no immediate comment from Syrian officials.

In Syria, rebels pressed on with a surprise offensive in the coastal province of Latakia. In the past week, opposition fighters in the area have seized a border crossing with Turkey, obtained a toehold to the Mediterranean, taken a strategic lookout point and overrun an Armenian Christian village.

Suggesting the intensity of the clashes, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group, said at least 150 Syrian soldiers and Assad-loyal fighters were killed in the fighting. The observatory said it based its information from medical officials in the city of Latakia, which shares the same name as the province.

The observatory keeps a detailed running toll of those killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011. The Syrian government typically does not comment on military losses.

Meanwhile, one of the U.N. agencies battling a polio epidemic in the country said Friday that Syria and neighboring Iraq — where a case was reported last week — are facing an onerous battle to eradicate the malady.

"The current polio outbreak in Syria — now with one confirmed case in Iraq — is arguably the most challenging outbreak in the history of polio eradication," a spokesman for the U.N. relief agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) told The Guardian.

The body, along with UNICEF and the World Health Organization, has led an unprecedented effort across the Middle East, vaccinating more than 22 million children since polio was first unearthed in Syria in October.

Thirty-eight cases have since been discovered.

The ongoing civil war there has complicated efforts, making it difficult for humanitarian officials to gain access to completely stamp out the disease.

"Seriously damaged health infrastructure, poor health access and utilization because of insecurity inside Syria, and massive movements of vulnerable and at-risk populations in and out of Syria — all make controlling the outbreak and rendering health protection to Palestine refugees in Syria and across the region very challenging," the official told The Guardian. 

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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