UN warns Syria's Raqa still 'too dangerous' for returnees

A picture taken on October 21, 2017 shows a general view of heavily damaged buildings in Raqa, after a Kurdish-led force expelled the Islamic State group from the northern Syrian city (AFP Photo/BULENT KILIC) (AFP/File)

Geneva (AFP) - The UN is intentionally providing only barebones aid in the former Islamic State stronghold of Raqa in Syria to avoid attracting more civilians to the still highly dangerous city, an official said Tuesday.

"We don't want to start too vigorous programmes... because we don't want to make the impression that Raqa city is safe," said Jakob Kern, head of the World Food Programme's operations in Syria.

"Because it is not safe. Nobody should actually live there," he told journalists in Geneva.

His comments came after the UN earlier this month conducted its first humanitarian mission to Raqa since it was liberated from IS last October.

The city, which IS proclaimed part of its "caliphate" in 2014, remains littered with mines, said Kern, who himself visited Raqa a few weeks ago.

He said on average two people are killed each day by stepping on mines or other unexploded devices.

"You have a city that was completely destroyed... completely mined," he said, "and yet 100,000 people are living there."

The WFP is for now providing food aid to some 50,000 people in Raqa through local partners on the ground.

But Kern said the organisation would not be sending in its own staff for the time being.

"We decided that it is way too dangerous for us to work there," he said, stressing "we are not exposing our own staff to that type of risk."

Kern said that when he and other WFP staff entered Raqa they had had one security officer for two staff members to keep them safe.

Kern, who only has a month left heading WFP's Syria operations, also addressed the situation elsewhere in Syria.

In Deir Ezzor, where 100,000 people were besieged by IS for three years, he said WFP's high-altitude airdrops of food aid had helped "avert famine".

When a WFP team went in two months ago, "people were overwhelmingly saying the same thing: without that food, we would not have survived," he said.