Middle East

Member of EU Syria delegation killed in Damascus suburb

Purported photograph showing war-damaged building in Darayya (23 February 2013)
Image caption Darayya has seen heavy fighting between rebels and troops since the uprising began two years ago

A member of the European Union's delegation in Syria has been killed in a rocket attack in a Damascus suburb.

Ahmad Shihadeh, an EU policy officer, was killed in Darayya, to the south-west of the capital, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.

He lived in the area and was killed while providing humanitarian help to the community, she said in a statement.

News of his death came as charities and the United Nations again warned of the growing human cost of the conflict.

The UN's commission for refugees called on foreign governments to release the funds needed to cope with the massive number of Syrian refugees, while UK charity Save the Children has warned of the increasing role of children in the two-year uprising.

'Courage'

In her statement, Baroness Ashton did not say who the EU believed was responsible for Mr Shihadeh's death, which happened on Tuesday.

According to the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an opposition activist network, two surface-to-surface missiles landed in Darayya on Tuesday night.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another opposition activist group based in the UK, said government forces had bombarded the town.

The LCC said Darayya had came under renewed artillery and rocket fire on Wednesday, and that army reinforcements were being deployed from the nearby Mezzeh military airport.

Image caption The UK appears closer to providing arms to Syrian rebels fighting Mr Assad.

Baroness Ashton offered her condolences to Mr Shihadeh's family and friends, saying he had been "known for his courage and selflessness".

The EU withdrew international staff and closed its Damascus office in December amid worsening violence, but local Syrian staff remained.

Darayya, along with other suburbs, has been a hotbed of unrest since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began two years ago.

In recent months, the fighting between rebel groups and government forces has moved closer to the capital itself, with dozens of people killed by bomb attacks in central districts.

Humanitarian crisis

On Wednesday, activists reported intense clashes in suburbs to the north-east of Damascus, where the opposing sides are wrestling for control. Local residents also reported more government shelling.

Save the Children warned that increasing numbers of children in Syria were being recruited by armed groups on both sides of the conflict.

Children are being used as porters and informers as well as fighters and, in some cases, human shields, the report said.

The United Nations commission for refugees also warned of the long-term humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria and its neighbours, who have already absorbed a million refugees fleeing the fighting.

UN high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres called on world governments to make the funds available to countries supporting Syrian refugees. He was speaking on a visit to Jordan, which is hosting 450,000 Syrians.

"If that does not happen, with the normal UN aid budgets we will not be able to deliver," he warned.

As the humanitarian crisis grows, Western governments have increasingly moved to show support for the opposition fighting against Mr Assad's rule.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has hinted the UK may veto any extension to the EU's arms embargo on Syria, allowing it to provide more aid to rebel fighters.

But on Wednesday Russia, one of Syria's few remaining allies, warned that supplying weapons to the opposition would be illegal under international law.

"I think that arming the opposition is a breach of international law", said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in London following talks with his UK counterpart William Hague.