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The ICRC is promised greater access to civilians in Syria

As civilians continue to suffer from the conflict affecting parts of Syria, the Syrian government has agreed to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) greater access to affected areas.

In a statement reported by Reuters, the president of the ICRC said discussions with Syrian officials over two days had been “frank and operational” about humanitarian issues. So far, the aid agency has only been able to make visits to a few cities within Syria during the three months of civil unrest which has lead to the deaths of at least 1,300 civilians and the detention of many thousands. Following the talks, the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent hope to be given “wider access to areas of unrest”, though the agency will continue to monitor the situation.

On Monday, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spoke to the country. He promised to hold a national dialogue on reforms and that a schedule would be drawn up following a series of consultative meetings with key individuals. The President said that such a dialogue would allow for “all different parties in the Syrian arena.... [to] participate”. If all went well, Mr al-Assad believed that parliamentary elections could still be held in August and that a new parliament could approve any new package of reforms in September. The President also promised to reduce corruption. He blamed the unrest over the past three months on saboteurs and extremists and a general amnesty was promised. This went into effect on Tuesday.

Internationally, reaction has not been favourable to the Syrian President’s speech. The United States said it wanted to see “action, not words”, since promises had been made to the people of Syria before. Last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also expressed her concern about the case of a 13-year old Syrian boy who disappeared during a protest in April. The boy’s body was returned to his family a month later with what appeared to be horrific injuries, leading activists to accuse Syrian security forces of torture and killings. Photos of the boy’s body stoked further protests, though the Syrian authorities denied any torture had taken place and said the boy was killed during the demonstration.

The stance of the European Union (EU) to the President’s speech was one of disappointment, as it condemned the ongoing violence in Syria.  In a statement agreed by EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg, the EU said it was “actively preparing to expand its restrictive measures” as a way to achieve policy changes by the Syrian leadership. Broader EU sanctions are therefore likely to be imposed, which may include further restrictions on companies or assets linked to individuals in the Syrian government. The violent response of the authorities to protests and the sending in of troops to northern towns are seen by the EU as a threat not only to Syria, but to the stability of the region as a whole.

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