DAMASCUS, Syria – The United Nations is ready to help people who might flee from the Afrin enclave, where Turkish troops are on the offensive against Kurdish fighters, the top U.N. official in Syria said Monday.
Ali al-Za'tari told The Associated Press in his office in western Damascus that they are following the news but "it is still not clear" if people are fleeing the region.
On Saturday, Turkey began an offensive aimed at driving out a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia, which Ankara views as a threat because of its links to Kurdish insurgents fighting in Turkey. Turkey says it aims to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep "secure zone" in Afrin.
"If and when we have verification of people in need, wherever they move to we will be able to assist," al-Za'tari said.
Elsewhere in Syria, Al-Za'tari described conditions in the besieged rebel-held Damascus suburbs known as eastern Ghouta as "terrible," saying that no aid has entered the area since December.
"Access sometimes is very difficult, or even near impossible because of ongoing fighting," he said.
Government forces have been pounding eastern Ghouta for weeks, killing and wounding dozens of people. Insurgents have fired shells into Damascus, also killing and wounding dozens, including nine dead on Monday alone, including a three-year old child, according to hospital officials and state media.
Last month, Syria's government allowed the evacuation of nearly 30 critically ill people from eastern Ghouta, where hundreds requiring medical treatment have been prevented from reaching hospitals minutes away.
Government forces had recently tightened their siege on the area, home to some 400,000 people, leading to severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine as winter set in, according to opposition activists.
"For people who are civilians I can only say that it's quite difficult because the access that they have to basic necessities is rather constrained, the prices of commodities are high (and) medical services are low," said al-Za'tari. "We need to get assistance into Ghouta regardless of the control party or authority in that region."
Al-Za'tari said there are currently about 500,000 people living in 10 besieged areas around Syria. He added that if those who are hard to reach are added, the figure rises to about 3 million.
The U.N. official said there are about 6 million Syrians who are internally displaced. Another 5 million have fled to neighboring countries.
"We don't have yet the conducive environment for refugees to return to Syria," al-Za'tari said, citing difficulties related to security, documentation and housing.
He said the U.N. spent $1.7 billion in Syria last year through the humanitarian response plan. He said they plan to spend $3.5 billion this year.