, UNITED NATIONS, Mar 10 – Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, will meet President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Saturday but only talk with opposition leaders outside of the conflict-stricken country, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said.
Ban said Annan would not leave Damascus on his first trip to the country since being named the international envoy with a daunting mission to end Assad’s year old clampdown on protests.
The envoy will meet Assad, other government officials, “civil society” and humanitarian workers in the Syrian capital, Ban told reporters at UN headquarters.
Annan, Ban’s predecessor as UN secretary general, will leave Damascus on Sunday and then visit other countries in the region, Ban said.
The schedule has not yet been decided, he added, though diplomatic sources in Ankara said Annan’s first stop from Damascus would be Turkey.
“He will be engaging with opposition leaders outside of Syria,” Ban added.
The UN says that well over 7,500 people have died in the year-old crackdown which has seen an intensive assault by government forces on protest cities such as Homs.
Ban stressed that Annan’s priority must be to halt the violence by government and opposition forces. “There should be an inclusive political solution.”
“I very strongly urged Kofi Annan to ensure there must be an immediate ceasefire,” Ban declared. “I also asked him to urge Assad to facilitate humanitarian assistance and access.”
Annan’s visit will come one day after UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos left Damascus in her bid to secure relief access to the protest cities. Amos said much of Homs had been “devastated” by the government assault of recent months.
The head of the UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees appealed meanwhile for the “neutrality” of the estimated 470,000 Palestinians in Syria to be respected by the opposing sides.
“It is very important in the present situation that the neutrality of Palestinians refugees is respected by all in the conflict,” Filippo Grandi, head of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said.
He said there was no evidence yet that Palestinian camps had been affected by the clampdown.
Some UNRWA operations were halted, including in Homs, when it became “too dangerous”, Grandi told a briefing at UN headquarters. “We are now reopening the schools in Homs which were closed.”
Some international staff have been withdrawn but most of the 3,000 agency workers are Palestinians.
Grandi appealed for the new emerging powers — the so-called BRICS countries: Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa — to step up their support for UNRWA.
“Some BRICS countries are stepping up their contributions, like Brazil last year and this year,” said Grandi who also praised India “for having become a regular contributor.”
“It is important that other countries step up to the plate and share the burden,” said the head of the agency which helps five million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East and has an annual budget of more than $1.2 billion.