Assad Regime Seizing Medical Aid Sent to Syria, Rights Group Says

Spokesman for the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations says forces loyal to beleaguered Syrian president confiscate aid from Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

President Bashar Assad's regime is confiscating much of the medical aid that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in Damascus tries to distribute, a spokesman for a Syrian medical aid group said Wednesday.

Dr. Tawfik Chamaa, a Syrian doctor in Geneva and spokesman for the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations, said that as much as "95 percent of everything that is sent to Syrian Red Crescent headquarters in Damascus goes to support the Syrian regime" and is handed out mainly to injured supporters of the government.

He told reporters in Geneva that dozens of medical workers have been killed and more than 600 imprisoned since the conflict began 19 months ago, but the ongoing aid diversion is a silent killer.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent has been virtually the only aid organization allowed to keep operating in Syria, where its volunteers have been involved in a wide range of aid such as helping to deliver food, setting up mobile health units and providing safe drinking water in schools.

"We are witnessing the silent death of hundreds of patients who are being treated for cancer, diabetes or hypertension or are undergoing dialysis or have premature babies or are pregnant," he said.

Raefah Makki, a spokeswoman in Beirut for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, or IFRC, said volunteers with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are working "sometimes in life-threatening conditions to provide urgent assistance to people affected by the unrest and in need of assistance in the most needed areas with complete impartiality."

Through the group, Makki said, her Geneva-based umbrella organization "supports medical health points and provides relief and food items that reach people in areas controlled by different parties."

She said eight aid workers with the group have been killed since Syria's unrest began in March 2011, which activists say has claimed more than 36,000 lives, but its neutrality is key to delivering humanitarian assistance to more than 1 million people monthly.

It is not clear to the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, which is working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, whether aid is being systematically diverted, as Chamaa described, said ICRC spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk.

"Whenever such facts are clearly established, which does not appear to be the case now, we treat them very seriously" by directly confronting managers with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and Syrian authorities, she added.