BEIRUT (Reuters) - A United Nations agency seeking to deliver humanitarian aid to a besieged district of Damascus said on Sunday state checkpoint authorities had hampered its work, despite government assurances it would allow the distributions.
The foundering agreement highlights the challenges that lie ahead for humanitarian workers should President Bashar al-Assad's government and the opposition agree on localised ceasefires at peace talks in Geneva this week.
The negotiations aim to facilitate the delivery of aid to areas worst-hit by fighting.
Humanitarian efforts in Syria have been hampered by fighting and by combatants on both sides, who often try to block deliveries to areas held by their opponents.
Some aid workers say Assad's forces have used a siege on rebel-held areas around the capital to starve out those inside - an indiscriminate tactic that hurts civilians.
There have been rising reports of death and sickness from malnutrition by doctors in those areas.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said Syrian authorities had given it assurances on January 18 that it could deliver food and other aid into Yarmouk, a district of the capital that was once a Palestinian refugee camp but has become an impoverished district home to Palestinians and Syrians alike.
Some 15 people have reportedly died from malnutrition in the Yarmouk district, where residents have been trapped for months with rebels under an army siege.
"The agency is extremely disappointed that - at this point -the assurances given by authorities have not been backed by action on the ground to facilitate regular, rapid entry into Yarmouk," Gunness said.
"On the occasions when checkpoint authorities have granted permission for food parcels and other relief items to enter ... UNRWA has stressed that the pace of distribution is so slow that it is defeating the humanitarian purpose of access."
At other times, Gunness said the UNRWA teams had not been granted access through the checkpoints and were told they had to wait for ongoing negotiations between rebel fighters and the army to be completed.
Only some 138 food parcels, which can feed eight people for 10 days, had been delivered since government assurances. That number falls far below the aid needed by the area's 18,000 residents.
Opposition activists say the government is using hunger as a weapon of war. The Syrian government says rebels are to blame for firing on aid convoys.
Two weeks earlier, UNRWA reported its aid convoys had to turn back from delivering aid to Yarmouk after a Syrian government escort was fired on and a mortar bomb exploded nearby.
The agency said Syrian authorities had required it to use an entrance into the district known to be an active combat zone and home to radical Islamist groups, instead of an entrance under government control.
Syria's conflict began as popular protests against Assad in March 2011, but devolved into civil after a security force crackdown sparked an armed uprising.
More than 130,000 people have been killed in the fighting. Another 6 million have fled their homes.
(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Sophie Hares)