U.N. plans for air drops, food aid in Syria suffer setbacks

GENEVA (Reuters) - Plans to airlift supplies to besieged towns in Syria inched ahead on Thursday amid concern from Russia and others about the safety of aid workers and uncertainty whether Damascus will approve, a U.N. official said. A proposed United Nations food convoy into the besieged rebel-held town of Daraya, the first to that suburb of the Syrian capital since 2012, has also been delayed, and will now not happen on Friday as previously planned. The preparations were discussed at a humanitarian taskforce meeting of countries in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) after a June 1 deadline passed for Syria's government to allow aid access or see air drops imposed from outside. "Air drops ... remain an option if land deliveries do not go through," Ramzy E. Ramzy, U.N. Deputy Special Envoy for Syria, said after the meeting. "They are an option in the table and will be activated if ... the members of ISSG are not satisfied." The United States and Britain have urged the U.N. to press ahead with air drops because Syria has not sufficiently opened up access to aid. Syria's opposition has warned that the government may open the door just enough to defuse the international pressure before restricting access again. Ramzy noted there were concerns for the safety of the crews of planes and helicopters who would deliver the aid. "It is not just the Russians who are concerned about security, it is an issue that has to be resolved." Russia, Syria's most powerful ally, is widely seen as having responsibility for convincing Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to meet his humanitarian obligations. Assad's government let two convoys of aid into Daraya and Mouadamiya, another rebel-held suburb of Damascus, on Wednesday. But there was no food for the malnourished citizens of Daraya. Jan Egeland, chairman of the U.N. humanitarian task force, said there were "clear indications" that a food convoy would go to Daraya within days, although not on Friday as planned. "The Russians in the task force themselves today said that it is the food component that the people are waiting most for in Daraya and that remains to be delivered," he said. "In Daraya, we reckon there will be around 4,000 people only left at the moment but that is women, children, people in great need. The reason we were not able to go by land access is lack of government approval." Bouthaina Shaaban, a top adviser to Assad, said that "nobody is starving in Daraya". "I can tell you that Daraya is producing peas and beans and food and wildberries that is enough for the entire Syria. It is a very fertile land and nobody is starving in Daraya. What we were trying to take into Daraya is school curricula, children vaccinations and whatever the few citizens in Daraya are asking for," Shaaban told reporters in Washington via Skype. "Daraya is the food basket of Damascus ... We all take our food from Daraya," said Shaaban who was addressing a conference on fighting al Qaeda and Islamic State militants at the National Press Club. She earlier said that Syria was working with the U.N. representative to find ways to deliver food and medical aid to Syrians. The U.N. wants to supply 11 besieged or hard-to-reach areas in the next few days and already has approval to deliver food aid to three other areas next week, Egeland said. (Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Tom Brown)