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Syria's embattled Qusayr off-limits to aid workers

By Tom Watkins, CNN
updated 1:47 PM EDT, Sat June 8, 2013
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow met with Syrian refugees in January 2013.
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow met with Syrian refugees in January 2013.
  • Still no access to aid 3 days after government forces take the city
  • The Security Council is urging Damascus to allow aid to Qusayr
  • The UN appealed Friday for $5 billion in aid to Syria

(CNN) -- Three days after Syrian government forces seized control of the strategically important city of Qusayr, aid workers remained unable Saturday to enter the region, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

"As of today, ICRC still doesn't have permission to enter Qusayr region and will continue to make all efforts to obtain access as and when security allows," spokesman Ewan Watson said in a statement.

The U.N. Security Council had urged on Friday that Syrian authorities let humanitarian reach the town.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said this week that it had received reports that as many as 1,500 wounded civilians were trapped in Qusayr, which endured nearly seven weeks of fighting until government forces gained control on Wednesday.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that almost 600 of the wounded were unable to walk. Many were trapped in narrow areas near the city, the network said.

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The ICRC said that, over the past two days, the Lebanese Red Cross transferred 39 Syrians to receive emergency medical care. The casualties were already on Lebanese territory and were not taken across the border by the Red Cross, Watson said.

In the village of Eastern Bowaiyda in Homs province, where many of those displaced by fighting in al Qusayr have sought shelter, clashes erupted between rebels and Syrian troops after the government forces tried to latter attempted to advance on the area, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported Saturday that the army had restored stability to the region.

Most of those who fled Qusayr to Lebanon are women and children.

"Those we have spoken to say it is unsafe to flee with men, who are at heightened risk of being arrested or killed at checkpoints along the way," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N.'s refugee agency, earlier this week.

Fleming said one woman told the agency that Qusayr residents were facing a stark choice: "You leave and risk being killed ... or you stay and face a certainty of being killed."

Fighters from Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite militia backed by Iran and the Syrian government, were involved in the takeover.

The loss of what had been a rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border represented a blow to rebels' efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and may portend heightened sectarian tensions.

The government's control of the city helps secure a critical link between the capital, Damascus, and Alawite strongholds such as Tartus and Latakia, said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

He predicted that the manly Sunni rebels' loss would spark a rise in cross-border attacks on Shiite towns in eastern Lebanon and possible attacks on Hezbollah forces farther inside the country.

More than 70,000 Syrians -- most of them civilians -- have been killed in the two-year conflict, according to the United Nations.

The growing need in Syria was underscored Friday when the United Nations made its largest appeal ever -- for more than $5 billion -- for relief aid to Syrians across the country.

"Syria as a civilization is unraveling, with as many as half of its citizens in need of urgent help as a result of this savage conflict," said Antonio Guterres, the world body's high commissioner for refugees, who announced the goal in Geneva. "The funds we are appealing for are a matter of survival for suffering Syrians, and they are essential for neighboring countries that are hosting refugees."

More than 1.6 million Syrians have fled the country since the conflict began in March 2011; another 4.25 million are estimated to have been displaced inside it.

The announcement came as the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs predicted that 3.45 million inside Syria could have crossed its borders by the end of the year and another 6.8 million people remaining inside Syria will need aid.

That's nearly half of the nation, which has a population of 22.5 million.

CNN's Bharati Naik contributed to this report.

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