UN to temporarily reduce staff in Damascus

Spokesperson says decision to move some of 100 foreign personnel comes after shells landed near hotel where staff stay.

File photo of Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib speaking to the media in Cairo
The UN's move comes after the Syrian National Coalition's leader agreed to address an Arab League summit [Reuters]

Amid continuing violence in Syria, the UN has announced that it is temporarily reducing the number of its international staff in the Damascus due to an increase in threats to security.

The UN has approximately 100 foreign and 800 Syrian staff working in the Syrian capital.

“Most of the Damascus-based staff of the Office of the Joint Representative for Syria are being temporarily relocated to Beirut and the Joint Special Representative’s main office in Cairo,” said Martin Nesirky, a UN spokesperson, at the body’s headquarters in New York on Monday.

“All of the national staff of that office have been asked to work from home, until further notice. These measures are being undertaken solely for security reasons,”

Nesirky said the move was prompted by shells falling near the hotel where UN staff were staying on Sunday and Monday.

Syrian rebels fired mortar rounds into central Damascus on Monday, killing at least two people and drawing a fierce army response as bombardments shook the capital, the Reuters news agency reported.

Nesirky said that the international staff worked for peace mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, the resident UN coordinator, the UN children’s agency UNICEF, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Food Programme and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

“There will still be in country enough people to be able to continue and indeed to increase the range of work particularly to reach people with food aid,” he said.

Opposition to attend summit

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition is to take over the country’s vacant seat at the Arab League, a high-ranking league official has said, a day ahead of a summit of Arab leaders in Doha, Qatar.

“The opposition has been invited to the Arab summit and will occupy Syria’s seat at the Arab League,” the official told the AFP news agency on Monday, requesting anonymity.

The pan-Arab bloc had already suspended President Bashar al-Assad’s membership and recognised the coalition as the legitimate representative of the people of Syria.

The Arab summit takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Syrian opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib said he would address the summit. Khatib resigned on Sunday as head of the National Coalition, but the opposition bloc rejected his resignation.

“I have decided to give a speech in the name of the Syrian people at the Doha conference,” he wrote on his Twitter account.

“This is a matter that has nothing to do with the resignation, which will be discussed later.” 

The National Coalition has been recognised by dozens of states and organisations as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The Syrian government, meanwhile, criticised the Arab League for giving the country’s seat to the opposition, who it termed “bandits” and “thugs”.

“The League has handed Syria’s stolen seat to bandits and thugs, to the [opposition] Coalition which thinks it can sit in the name of the Syrian people,” the official al-Thawra newspaper said.

Syria ‘destruction’

Nizar al-Heraki, Syria’s opposition ambassador to Qatar, told Al Jazeera that he will be arriving in Doha along with Khatib from Cairo on Monday evening.

He said the reaction to Khatib’s announced resignation was “very strong”.

Keraki did not directly say whether Khatib will rescind his decision or not, but that the opposition leader “will see if the international community will fulfill the promises it made”.

Khatib on Sunday said he wanted to resign so he could “work with a freedom that cannot possibly be had in an official institution”.

“For the past two years, we have been slaughtered by an unprecedentedly vicious regime, while the world has looked on,” Khatib said in a statement released on his Facebook page.

“All the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure, the detention of tens of thousands of people, the forced flight of hundreds of thousands and other forms of suffering have been insufficient for the international community to take a decision to allow the people to defend themselves.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies