By Tom Esslemont
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations plans to keep working with charities in Syria despite a decision by more than 70 relief groups to suspend ties with the U.N. for its links to the Syrian government, officials said on Thursday.
The coalition of 73 charities penned an open letter to the U.N. saying its agencies and its partners in Syria were under the "significant and substantial" influence of President Bashar al-Assad.
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"We have little hope that the U.N.-coordinated humanitarian response might operate independently of the political priorities of the Syrian government," the letter said.
The U.N.'s work in Syria has come under fire since an investigation published last week by the British newspaper The Guardian revealed lucrative contracts were awarded to people close to Assad.
The Guardian found aid money has gone to a charity set up by Assad's wife and to groups and businesses under U.S. and European Union sanctions.
More than 250,000 people have died and 11 million from a population of 23 million have been forced from their homes in Syria's five-year war which started as an uprising against Assad's rule.
The Assad government manipulates relief efforts to deprive Syrians in besieged areas outside government control from much needed services, the letter said. The war has created a patchwork of areas controlled by government forces, militias, nationalist rebels, Islamic State and others.
The charities requested that a new monitoring body oversee relief work in Syria.
In response, the U.N. praised the "tremendous work" of charities in Syria, saying they "provide assistance to millions of Syrians in desperate need."
"We're going to continue to engage with them and all humanitarian partners in order to improve our collective efforts and reach as many people as we can in Syria," a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in the statement.
"We welcome any public scrutiny to our humanitarian work in Syria," it added.
The Syrian government insists that the U.N. work from a list of approved partners, the spokesman said.
The Guardian report said it had analyzed hundreds of U.N. contracts awarded since 2011, finding the U.N.'s World Health Organization spent more than $5 million on Syria's national blood bank which is controlled by Assad's defense department.
It found the U.N. had paid more than $13 million to the Syrian government to improve farming and agriculture - although the European Union has banned trade with those departments.
It also said the U.N. has paid at least $4 million to Syria's state-owned fuel supplier, also under EU sanctions.
The U.N. said it hoped to have a dialogue with the agencies that signed the letter.
(Reporting by Tom Esslemont, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, land rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)