The United Nations regional humanitarian co-ordinator for Syria has said that the country’s death toll from last week’s deadly earthquake is likely to rise further as teams scramble to remove rubble in hard-hit areas.
In an interview with the Associated Press on Thursday, Muhannad Hadi defended the UN’s response to the disaster, which many in Syria have criticised as slow and inadequate.
The UN has reported a death toll of about 6,000 for all of Syria, including 4,400 in the rebel-held northwest.
That figure is higher than those reported by government authorities in Damascus and civil defence officials in the north west, who have reported 1,414 and 2,274 deaths respectively.
Mr Hadi noted that even before the earthquake, there were some 4.1 million people in need of aid in north-west Syria, many of whom were already displaced and have now become homeless or displaced again.
Locals struggling with the aftermath of the earthquake have criticised delays in getting UN aid to the area.
Roads leading to the one border crossing from Turkey to Syria that the UN is authorised to use were damaged by the earthquake.
The UN and Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, reached a deal on Monday to open two additional crossings, but critics say the UN should have used additional crossings without waiting for approval or found another way to get aid in, in light of the dire situation on the ground.
Syrian rescue workers and those who lost homes and family members in the quake have criticised the slow arrival of aid, saying they felt abandoned by the international community.
“I can assure you that we have done everything we can from the very beginning,” Mr Hadi said. “We asked everybody to put the interests of the people first.
Mr Hadi said 120 aid trucks had crossed into north-western Syria from Turkey as of Thursday.
So far, no aid convoys have crossed from Damascus-controlled territory into the rebel-held areas.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the al-Qaida-linked rebel group that controls much of the north west, has so far refused to allow aid to cross from government areas.
Mr Hadi said the UN is “working with all parties” to open the route to aid, but acknowledged that “so far, we haven’t been successful”.
The UN has appealed for 397 million US dollars (£329 million) to provide “desperately needed, life-saving relief,” including shelter, food and health care for the next three months.
More complications will almost certainly arise once the earthquake response moved from immediate emergency aid to rebuilding, but Mr Hadi said it is too early to think about that.
“What we need to focus on right now is the humanitarian work,” he said.