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U.N. aid groups say world must act now to save Syria

Members of the Free Syrian Army fire weapons mounted on a pick-up truck in Deir al-Zor April 14, 2013. Picture taken April 14, 2013. REUTERS
Members of the Free Syrian Army fire weapons mounted on a pick-up truck in Deir al-Zor April 14, 2013. Picture taken April 14, 2013. REUTERS

By Conor Humphries

DUBLIN (Reuters) - World leaders must act urgently to break the diplomatic deadlock around Syria if they want to prevent the crisis from reaching a dangerous tipping point, the heads of the United Nations aid agencies said on Monday in a rare political appeal.

If the international community continues to dither the crisis could turn into a humanitarian catastrophe that could scar the region for a generation, one of the leaders said.

Two years into Syria's uprising-turned-civil war, which has killed at least 70,000 people, the international community is mired in a diplomatic stalemate with Russia and China opposing sanctions against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

In Europe, Germany is resisting a Franco-British proposal to lift an arms embargo on Syria to support the outgunned rebels.

The heads of the United Nations World Food Programme, the World Health Organization and the UNICEF children's fund joined aid chief Valerie Amos and High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres to say they were "precariously close" to suspending some humanitarian support.

"We, leaders of U.N. agencies charged with dealing with the human costs of this tragedy, appeal to political leaders involved to meet their responsibility to the people of Syria and to the future of the region," said the statement, which is to be published in a number of newspapers on Tuesday.

"We ask that they use their collective influence to insist on a political solution to this horrendous crisis before hundreds of thousands more people lose their homes and lives and futures — in a region already at the tipping point," it said.

The agencies are responsible for helping nearly 1.3 million Syrian refugees and almost 4 million more people displaced inside Syria by the conflict.

"CRISIS BECOMING CATASTROPHE"

The appeal comes ahead of a briefing by Guterres and Amos before the U.N. Security Council meeting on Thursday on the humanitarian situation in Syria.

One of the signatories of the appeal, UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake, said that "dithering" by the international community could have catastrophic consequences.

"The international community needs to find a political solution to this conflict before the human carnage grows and grows from a crisis to what is already becoming a catastrophe," Lake said on the sidelines of a conference in Dublin.

"There is not enough funding, not enough attention, not enough political will," Lake, a former U.S. National Security Advisor, told Reuters in an interview.

While the lack of progress in brokering a solution to the civil war is the biggest issue facing the humanitarian effort, a funding crunch is also having a growing impact, Lake said.

"The needs are outpacing the funding," he said, adding that his agency, which has 60 full-time workers in Syria, might struggle to maintain its services in the coming months.

The United Nations said last week that it would halt food aid to 400,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon next month unless it receives urgent new funding.

It said only $400 million out of more than $1.5 billion pledged by international donors in January to cover Syrian refugee needs for the first half of the year had been committed.

Unlike other crises, the high media profile of the Syria conflict has not translated into high donations, in part because the media are focusing closely on the politics rather than the human suffering, Lake said.

There is also a sense of crisis fatigue, he added.

"We have seen this in conflicts and crises before. After a while people see the same headline and they become inured."

(Reporting by Conor Humphries; editing by Mike Collett-White)

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