Red Cross steps up aid to Syria under local truces: senior official

By Stephanie Nebehay GENEVA (Reuters) - Syrian authorities and insurgents have allowed the Red Cross to deliver growing amounts of aid under local ceasefires since August, in a possible harbinger of reconciliation in the civil war, an ICRC official said on Thursday. Boris Michel, outgoing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Syria, also told Reuters in an interview it had made five visits to four government-run prisons last year, the first since May 2012. "Increasingly and also through the process of local reconciliation, things are opening up," Michel said. "If you want to de-escalate the conflict, you have to start from the local level and build local truces, arrangements, just to stabilize the situation because people are exhausted after four years of conflict and the human cost of it is huge." The ICRC has 300 staff in Syria, including 51 expatriates against 35 a year ago. "There was progress during the course of the year, we received many more visas, we crossed many more (front) lines and opened more offices," Michel said. "The idea was to negotiate our access from within. We convinced authorities to provide more access to victims so there is more delivery of humanitarian assistance on a needs-based approach, therefore crossing lines across Syria," he said. "We are increasingly working to support the reconciliation process and offer services to make them (truces) happen," he said. "This is part of the process for a better Syria in the future, whatever the political outcome is." The organization played a role in truces in Barzeh, Moadimiya, Yarmouk and Yelda-Babila near Damascus and Al-Waer in Homs. "We have reached ISIS-held areas," Michel said, referring to the Islamic State group. "These areas are reachable with a lot of constraints and difficulties but still we want to reach them because there are people to be assisted." PRISON VISITS In Barzeh, the ICRC is repairing a clinic along the front line to serve people on all sides. "It is in place but those truces are fragile. It takes just one bullet to make the whole thing collapse," he said. "We managed to provide surgical assistance on many occasions, we delivered to dozens of hospitals on both sides with surgical assistance which is a breakthrough." Through resumed prison visits, the ICRC is helping to trace the missing, re-establish family ties and discuss conditions of detention with authorities. The ICRC has not visited people held by rebel forces, due to problems with security. "But at least we have reached the stage where we can submit requests and try to receive answers, which is already a first step," Michel said. "Our water and sanitation team doubled since the beginning of 2014. We have some 450 ongoing projects throughout the whole country, all provinces, serving 15 million people with clean water. "A lot of power plants or water treatment plants are located in opposition areas. We've been able to cross the lines, convince them wherever the plants are, both in government or on the opposition side, that cutting water or creating problems with water is in the interest of no one." More than 200,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since it began in 2011. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Andrew Roche)