- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 4, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad told the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in talks in Damascus on Tuesday that the group is welcome to operate on the ground in the country as long as it remains “neutral and independent,” state media reported.

ICRC spokewoman Rabab al-Rafai did not give further details about Mr. Assad’s meeting with Red Cross President Peter Maurer but said the Red Cross chief later met with Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad and also was holding talks with the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Abdul-Rahman Attar.

“President Assad confirmed Syria welcomes the humanitarian operations that the organization is conducting on the ground in Syria as long as it works in a neutral and independent way,” the state-run SANA news agency quoted Mr. Assad as saying.

Mr. Maurer’s three-day visit, which began Monday, comes as the need for humanitarian assistance in Syria has grown increasingly urgent with the fighting having spread to the country’s two largest cities — the capital, Damascus, and the commercial hub of Aleppo. Activists say August was the bloodiest month since the uprising against Mr. Assad began in March 2011, with about 5,000 people killed.

The escalating bloodshed has prompted a growing exodus by Syrians looking to escape the conflict.

The U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said Tuesday that 100,000 refugees fled Syria to neighboring countries in August, the highest monthly toll since the crisis began. In Geneva, agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the rise in people seeking asylum in neighboring countries brings the total of Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration with the UNHCR to 234,368 as of Sept. 2.

The Red Cross said earlier that during his trip Mr. Maurer would address the “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation” and the difficulties that the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent face in reaching people affected by the country’s civil war.

“At a time when more and more civilians are being exposed to extreme violence, it is of the utmost importance that we and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent succeed in significantly scaling up our humanitarian response,” Mr. Maurer said in comments made before his arrival in Syria. “An adequate humanitarian response is required to keep pace with needs, which have been growing exponentially.”

Mr. Maurer added that, during his visit, he also intended to follow up on points agreed to in April, such as expanded access to persons detained in Syria and “the imperative necessity of helping civilians affected by hostilities.”

Syria‘s uprising began with largely peaceful protests against Mr. Assad’s regime but has since morphed into a civil war in the face of a brutal government crackdown. Activists say at least 23,000 people have been killed so far.

The civil war witnessed a turning point in July when rebels carried out an audacious bombing in Damascus that killed four high-ranking security officials, including the defense minister and Mr. Assad’s brother-in-law. Since then, the regime has succeeded in largely quelling a rebel offensive in the capital but has struggled to contain an opposition push into the northern city of Aleppo.

On Tuesday, Abdul-Qadir Saleh, the commander of the Tawhid Brigade, which is spearheading the Aleppo offensive, said rebels now control most of the city, Syria‘s largest.

“The regime only controls 30 percent of Aleppo,” Mr. Saleh told reporters in Istanbul. He added that regime forces now are attacking civilian areas in an attempt to “turn civilians against the rebels.”

Mr. Saleh’s claim could not be independently verified, and the government says its troops are advancing in the city.

Also Tuesday, activists reported scattered violence across the country, including in Aleppo and Idlib in the north, Daraa in the south and the Damascus suburbs.

Associated Press writer John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.

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