Red Cross demands access to Syrian town amid fears for wounded

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was still seeking a formal Syrian response to its request for urgent access to the besieged town of Qusair after a minister said aid efforts should wait until the fighting was over.

Humanitarian groups say as many as 1,500 wounded people may be trapped in Qusair by fighting between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who are backed by fighters from Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite group Hezbollah.

At least 80,000 people have lost their lives in the two-year uprising against Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

“We remain alarmed about the current situation in Qusair where food, water and medical supplies are reported to be very scarce,” ICRC spokesman Alexis Heeb said.

“We want access. We have requested this access,” he said. “When we get the green light we also have to make sure the security conditions are acceptable to send the assistance.”

He was speaking a day after Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Moualem told UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon that Syria would grant the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent access to Qusair “as soon as military operations are over”.

The assault on Qusair began two weeks ago. An ultimatum from the army and Hezbollah to evacuate civilians was ignored by fighters in the town who said they did not trust authorities to allow safe passage.

Assad’s soldiers and Hezbollah have since all but surrounded the strategic border town, and appear to hold much of the town itself. But rebels say they have brought fighters from the northern province of Aleppo and other regions of Syria, slipping them through the army’s lines to reinforce Qusair.

Assad’s efforts to recapture Qusair follow a series of counter-offensives in southern Syria and east of Damascus which have consolidated his hold over central Syria ahead of planned peace talks promoted by the US and Russia.

The president says he supports negotiations in principle, but last week dampened prospects for a breakthrough by saying any change to his powers must be approved in a referendum, undermining chances for political transition.

Despite Washington and Moscow’s joint push for talks, the two powers are still divided over Syria’s civil war. The US has provided non-lethal aid to rebels, while Russia continues to supply Damascus with arms.

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