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GENEVA — Syria has agreed to allow humanitarian workers and supplies into four of its provinces hit hardest by violence, a promise of some relief in a nation where 1 million people need aid urgently due to the fighting, officials said Tuesday.
At the same time, however, Damascus plunged itself into further international isolation by labeling U.S. and European envoys as unwelcome in retaliation for earlier Western expulsions of Syrian diplomats.
The humanitarian deal requires Syria to provide visas for an unspecified number of aid workers from nine U.N. agencies and seven other non-governmental organizations, and to cut through the red tape that has blocked convoys from delivering food, medicine and other supplies, said John Ging, operations director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
But officials were quick to caution they won't declare success until the regime of President Bashar Assad delivers on its promises. Ging said he hopes it will be "days, not weeks" before the workers start filtering in and aid is delivered to Daraa, Deir el-Zour, Homs and Idlib provinces, and he urged Syria to keep its end of the bargain.
"Whether this is a breakthrough or not will be evident in the coming days and weeks and it will be measured not in rhetoric, not in agreements, but in action on the ground," Ging said after a closed-door session in Geneva to discuss the dire humanitarian situation in Syria.
Syria's uprising began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests, but a brutal government crackdown using tanks, machine guns and snipers led many in the opposition to take up arms. The violence has grown in recent months, with the country spiraling toward civil war and activists saying more than 13,000 people have been killed.
Last week, Western nations expelled Syrian diplomats in a coordinated move after a May 25 massacre in which more than 100 people were slaughtered in Houla, a cluster of small villages in the central province of Homs. The U.N. says pro-regime gunmen were believed to be responsible for at least some of the killings, but Assad has insisted his forces had nothing to do it.
On Tuesday, Syria barred some U.S. and European diplomats, saying they were "no longer welcome." The countries targeted by the order had already pulled their ambassadors from Damascus, but the move showed how far diplomatic ties have disintegrated amid the uprising.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Damascus has decided to take a "reciprocal measure" against ambassadors from the U.S., Britain, Turkey, Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain. A number of French, German, Canadian, Bulgarian and Belgian diplomats also are affected, Makdissi said.
Because of visa delays and hassles over customs clearances and how to distribute the supplies, the U.N. has struggled to deliver aid, and it has largely trickled in through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
The U.N. launched the Syrian Humanitarian Forum, a gathering of diplomats to negotiate for access, and Ging called the agreement "a step of progress."
Many in Syria are in urgent need due to injuries in fighting or because of lost jobs or homes, he said. More than 78,000 Syrian refugees were also being helped in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the U.N. refugee agency said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of sources on the ground, said 113 soldiers have been killed in clashes with rebel forces across the country since Friday, in what appeared to be some of the heaviest losses for government troops since the uprising began.
The figure was impossible to verify independently, but the Syrian government said nearly 80 soldiers had been killed in the past three days.
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