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UN group again calls for aid for besieged civilians in Syria

UNITED NATIONS -- The heads of five UN humanitarian agencies Wednesday reissued an urgent appeal for civilians under siege in Syria, where they said people's need for help becomes more desperate by the day.

"The war escalates in many areas," read the joint statement by the leaders of the five agencies. "The humanitarian situation deteriorates day after day. And for the civilians remaining in the cities of Aleppo and the Old City of Homs, as well as other parts of the country experiencing heavy fighting, the worst days seem yet to come."

The humanitarian agency leaders issued the appeal as peace talks stalled.

The so-called Geneva II conference convened by the UN and Arab League's special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was interrupted after two mostly unfruitful sessions earlier this year. Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has said there was no date yet set to restart the talks.

Dujarric also said Syria's announcement that it would hold presidential elections in June was a development that would drastically alter the political landscape. The United States and some other countries demand that President Bashar Assad step down to allow for a transition to a new government.

Elections held in a state of war are already difficult, but Dujarric said Monday they "will damage the political process and hamper the prospects for a political solution that the country so urgently needs."

He added: "Such elections are incompatible with the letter and spirit of the Geneva Communiqué," which is the blueprint for the peace talks and which was adopted during the first international conference on the conflict in 2012.

The agency heads' statement was released a year after a similar one in which the leaders of the World Health Organization, the World Food Program, United Nations Children's Fund, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN Relief and Works Agency called on the warring parties to allow access for delivery of food, medicine and water to people trapped in key cities.

It was signed by Valerie Amos, the UN's under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator; Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF; António Guterres, UN high commissioner for refugees; Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Program; and Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization.

They said that cry for assistance last year has gone "largely unanswered" by the two sides in the conflict, now in its fourth year.

Access in and out of cities has been denied by both the Syrian government and the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, who cracked down on demonstrators in March 2011 during the Arab Spring movement that swept longtime strongmen out of power in several Middle Eastern countries.

In Syria, though, an estimated 150,000 people have been killed in a protracted civil war and millions have become internally displaced persons or refugees languishing in camps in nearby countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Experts estimate that more than 9.3 million people have been affected and that more than 2.4 million refugees have been registered in the region, according to UN figures.

"Aerial bombardment, rockets, mortars and other indiscriminate attacks slaughter innocent men, women, and children," the statement continued. "In Aleppo it is reported that there are now only 40 doctors for a population of 2.5 million people -- once there were more than 2,000 -- and medical supplies are scarce. The city is surrounded on all sides."

They urged both sides to:

Enable unconditional humanitarian access to all people in need, using all available routes either across lines inside Syria or across its borders.

Lift the sieges on civilians in parts of Aleppo, the Old City of Homs, Yarmouk, East Ghouta, Moadhamieh, Nubl and Zahra.

End indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilians and stop all other violations of international humanitarian law.

"If we are to do more, to reach and help more people, those engaged in this horrific conflict, and those with influence over them, must do more," read the statement. "Thus far, diplomatic efforts designed to end years of suffering have failed. What have not failed are the courage and determination of extraordinary Syrian civilians to survive. Can those with the responsibility and the power and the influence to stop this terrible, tragic war find the same courage? The same will?"

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