U.N. Aid Workers Not Prepared For Chemical Weapons In Syria

The head of the U.N. refugee agency says aid workers are not at all prepared for the possibility of chemical warfare in Syria. That's just one of the concerns aid workers have in what they call the worst humanitarian disaster in recent decades. Eight thousand Syrians are fleeing every day and the world has focused much more on planning for the day after Bashar al-Assad is toppled rather than on dealing with the humanitarian catastrophes of today.

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The head of the U.N. refugee agency says aid workers are not prepared for the possibility of chemical warfare in Syria. And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, that's just one of many concerns relief groups face in what they're calling the worst humanitarian disaster in decades.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says investigators have been gathering information on alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria. But the Syrian government has yet to allow the U.N. team to enter the country.

BAN KI-MOON: This is a crucial moment in our efforts to get the team on the ground to carry out its important task.

KELEMEN: While Ban was meeting in New York with the head of his inspection team, a top U.N. aid official was at a conference near Washington, D.C. with a dire warning about chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria. Here's the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Let's be frank. If there is a massive use of chemical weapons in the country, we are not prepared to face it and to be able to deliver humanitarian aid in that kind of environment.

KELEMEN: Guterres says aid groups have already had trouble reaching people in need in Syria, having to negotiate with the Syrian government and with various rebel groups for each aid shipment crossing the frontlines. And he says it doesn't help that the U.N. Security Council has been paralyzed on Syria.

GUTERRES: So the conflict is going on and on and on and on. And each day we have 8,000 people crossing the border. And each day, we have more people killed inside Syria. And each day, we have more people that loses access to basic services and we see more and more neighborhoods to be destroyed. And this combination of human suffering, the collapse of a state, and the destruction of a country is obviously something that should have created a stronger sense of urgency.

KELEMEN: Guterres was speaking to InterAction, an alliance of humanitarian groups. Its president, Samuel Worthington, says up to now, the international community has been too focused on preparing for the day after Bashar al-Assad's rule comes to an end.

SAMUEL WORTHINGTON: There's a sense of, well, we need to wait till the destruction is finished and then somehow we'll come in and pick up the pieces. We can't. The level of human suffering that we're seeing within Syria and within the surrounding countries is both destabilizing politically, but from a humanitarian perspective, had reached a crisis proportion.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has offered $410 million so far in humanitarian aid for Syria and surrounding countries, according to Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard, who deals with refugee issues.

ANNE RICHARDS: The United States government is the engine driving the international humanitarian response.

KELEMEN: Aid experts say the overall international response is far from what's needed, though. And it's been a challenge delivering supplies in Syrian cities, where advanced weapons are being used.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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