Russia allowing new access to besieged Syrians: UN food agency

OTTAWA -- The head of the United Nations World Food Program says she appreciates Russia's assistance in helping it reach hungry, besieged parts of Syria in recent days.

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Russia's deal with the United States to cease hostilities in Syria has resulted in more food reaching hungry people in the cities of Modamiyeh and Deir el-Zour, said Ertharin Cousin, the WFP's executive director.

The U.S. and Russia have agreed to cease hostilities in Syria at midnight Friday in what many see as the best prospect for ending its five-year-old civil war that has left 250,000 people dead and forced 11 million to flee their homes.

"The good news is that Russia's recent agreement with the U.S. has resulted in access that previously, we as humanitarians, were not able to achieve," Cousin said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The United States has accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of implementing a "surrender or starve" policy that it sees as a violation of the rules of war. The U.S. has also accused Russia of levelling airstrikes not at terrorists but at moderate opposition groups fighting Assad.

Cousin, who is in Ottawa for talks with the new Trudeau government, said she hopes the current Russia-U.S. deal leads to a long-term ceasefire that will end the misery for Syria's innocent civilians.

"We are hopeful that the ceasefire that's been negotiated will result in an opportunity for a longer term ceasefire that can begin the political discussions that are necessary to end what is a humanitarian crisis that is the direct result of failed political action."

Cousin visited Syria in 2014 to see the devastation first-hand and gauge the ability of her agency's ability to reach starving people.

Images of starving Syrians have shocked the world, and while she wouldn't comment on Russia's past actions -- in support of Syria militarily over its skies and politically at the Security Council -- she said she appreciates what they are doing now.

She said Russia helped the WFP in Wednesday's air drop of 21 metric tons of aid over Deir el-Zour, which has been controlled by extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The WFP has also reached the besieged city of Modamiyeh twice in last 10 days, its first access since 2013, she said.

Cousin said Syria's deterioration leaves her sad, "but I don't have the luxury of becoming disillusioned."

The situation, she said, "is making her more strident and vocal about the effects of a failed political solution" by all parties.

"These are children, these are mothers, these are grandmothers who lived in a country that not only fed itself before this crisis, (but) was also the breadbasket for the neighbours (and) has now lost 35 years of development, where the children were some of the best educated in the Middle East."

Many of those children have now been out of school for three to five years, she added.

Cousin said she generally asks for more money everywhere she goes, but she's not pegging the success of her trip on getting an additional financial commitment.

She did add, however, that she'd like to see more long-term development dollars from Canada. She said she wants to preserve the continuation of what she called the steadfast support of past Canadian governments.

"WFP has demonstrated to the Canadian people that we're a good spender of taxpayers' dollars," she said.

"That position has given us the ability to work well with the different governments here in Canada."

Cousin met Thursday with International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau. She also said that the Liberal government's commitment to the environment will ultimately help her agency feed more people in climate-affected areas.

"Having Canada back involved in climate issues in a very vocal way will make a difference for those we serve."



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