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UN to move half of international staff out of Syria

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The United Nations is removing about half of the 100 international staffers it has in Syria as attacks edge closer to UN buildings, a spokesman said Monday.

Mortar shells have fallen on the Damascus hotel used by UN workers, according to UN spokesman Martin Nesirky, who blamed worsening security conditions for the decision to evacuate staff.

All of the 800 Syrian staff remaining have been told to work from home until security improves, he added.

Nearly all of the Damascus staff of UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will be moved to Cairo or Beirut as part of the new measures, Nesirky told reporters.

"Yesterday and today a number of mortar shells fell in close proximity to and on the grounds of the hotel in Damascus housing UN staff," Nesirky said.

The mortars damaged the building and some cars, including one UN vehicle, he added.

Other suicide bombs and attacks have also struck close to UN buildings as Damascus becomes a key battleground in the war between government forces and opposition rebels, diplomats said.

At least one person was killed and several injured when mortars hit the central Ummayad Square on Monday, Syrian media reported. Other shells fell on the district on Sunday, injuring about a dozen people.

Nesirky said about 50 of the approximately 100 UN international staff in Damascus would be affected by the "temporary relocation". A handful will also be moved to other Syrian cities, such as Homs.

The international staff come from Brahimi's mission, the Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Program and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees and other UN agencies.

The United Nations has a huge humanitarian operation in Syria aiming to feed and help more than two million Syrians caught in the two-year-old conflict which the UN says has left more than 70,000 dead.

Most of the distribution work is now carried out by Syrian staff and through the Syrian Red Crescent.

Nesirky stressed, however, that Brahimi's political efforts to end the two-year-old conflict would go on. Brahimi is based in Cairo.

"These measures are being undertaken solely for security reasons. The United Nations remains active and committed to helping the Syrians sides in their search for a political solution," Nesirky said.

The safety measures come as the UN also reviews the future of the UN Disengagement Force (UNDOF) monitoring a ceasefire in the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel.

Israeli troops on the strategic plateau fired an anti-tank missile at a Syrian army post on Sunday after coming under fire. Nesirky called it "a worrying firing incident."

The UN has halted nearly all patrols by UNDOF and the UN Security Council will discuss the mission on Tuesday.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130325/un-move-half-international-staff-out-syria-0