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UN envoy says destruction in Syria is reaching ‘catastrophic proportions’

NEW YORK (BNO NEWS) -- The new Joint Special Representative of the United Nations (UN) and the Arab League on the Syrian crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, on Tuesday said the death toll as a result of the ongoing civil war is "staggering" and the destruction is reaching "catastrophic proportions."

Brahimi made the comments to the UN General Assembly in New York in his first formal speech since assuming the role on August 17. "The death toll is staggering. The destruction is reaching catastrophic proportions, and the suffering of the people is immense," he said in the brief statement.

The Algerian diplomat, who has served the UN in various high-level roles over the past two decades, said he is looking forward to visit the Syrian capital of Damascus later this week. "And also, when convenient and possible, to all the countries who are in a position to help the Syrian-led political process become a reality," he said.

Brahimi said such a political process should lead to a transition that respects the "legitimate aspirations" of the Syrian people and enables them independently and democratically to determine their own future. "The future of Syria will be built by its own people and none other," he said. "The support of the international community is both indispensable and very urgent."

In his own speech to the UN General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the conflict is intensifying. "The longer it goes on, the more difficult it will be to contain. The more difficult it will be to find a political solution. The more challenging it will be to rebuild the country and the economy," he said.

Ban also said UN agencies need to expand their presence in Syria. "The humanitarian situation is grave and deteriorating, both in Syria and in neighbours affected by the crisis," he said. "However, we are constrained by underfunding. The $180 million Humanitarian Response Plan is only half-funded. Some critical sectors have received almost no funding at all, while overall needs are growing."

Ban said the most pressing needs are water and sanitation, shelter, essential items such as blankets and hygiene kits, as well as emergency medical assistance. The UN now estimates more than 2.5 million people in Syria need assistance, including Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. More than 1.2 million people are displaced inside the country.

The call for additional funding to address the humanitarian situation comes as the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR confirmed that the number of refugees fleeing Syria rose sharply in August, with more than 100,000 people seeking asylum in surrounding countries - the highest monthly total of the Syria crisis to date.

"The number of Syrian refugees registered in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq is now more than 225,000 and rising," Ban said. "These Governments have generously opened their borders and accepted their responsibility to shelter those who have sought refuge. They urgently need support. Just this weekend Jordan increased its appeal for funding to meet the growing demands."

The crisis in Syria began in March 2011 as a pro-democracy protest movement, similar to those across the Middle East and North Africa. The Syrian government violently cracked down on the protests, setting off an armed conflict between pro-Assad forces and anti-government forces.

The United Nations estimates that more than 18,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria and more than 1.2 million have been displaced since the uprising against President al-Assad began 1.5 year ago. The opposition believes the number of deaths has already surpassed 20,000.

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