FILE--In this April 30, 2012 file photo, Syrian security forces, background, hold their machine guns and surround anti-Syrian regime mourners, foreground, during the funeral procession of the activist Nour al-Zahraa, 23, who was shot by the Syrian security forces on Sunday, in Kfar Suseh area, in Damascus, Syria. The swaggering gunmen operate as hired muscle for the Syrian regime, clutching rifles and daggers as they sweep through towns and villages, seeking vengeance on enemies of Bashar Assad. Recruited from the ruling elite's Alawite sect, the militiamen known as "shabiha" carry out some of the most ghastly attacks of Syria's violent conflict, allowing the regime to deny any direct responsibility. Witnesses have blamed shabiha for the Houla massacre over the weekend. (AP Photo, File)
GENEVA (AP) — President Bashar Assad's government has agreed to ease humanitarian access to four of the hardest-hit provinces in Syria, officials said Tuesday, even as the regime plunged into further international isolation by labeling a string of U.S. and European diplomats unwelcome.
The deal allows visas for an unspecified number of aid workers from nine U.N. agencies and seven other non-governmental organizations and cuts red tape blocking supply convoys from entering the provinces where at least 1 million are in urgent need of aid, said John Ging, operations director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Ging said he hopes it will be "days, not weeks" for aid to be delivered to the provinces of Daraa, Deir el-Zour, Homs and Idlib, and urged Syria to keep up its end of the bargain.
"Today marks a step of progress, in that there is now an agreement with the Syrian government on the scale, scope and modality for a humanitarian response in Syria," Ging told reporters in Geneva after emerging from a closed-door session to discuss the dire humanitarian situation in Syria.
"Whether this is a breakthrough or not will be evident in the coming days and weeks and it will be measured not in rhetoric, not in agreements, but in action on the ground."
Syria's uprising began with mostly peaceful protests, but a brutal government crackdown with tanks, machine guns and snipers led many in the opposition to take up arms. The violence has grown increasingly chaotic in recent months, and it is difficult to assign blame for much of the bloodshed as the country spirals toward civil war.
Last week, Western nations expelled Syrian diplomats in a coordinated move over a massacre in which more than 100 people were slaughtered over one weekend in Houla, a cluster of small villages. The U.N. says pro-regime gunmen were believed to be responsible for at least some of the killings, but Assad has insisted his forces had nothing to do it.
On Tuesday, Syria barred a string of U.S. and European diplomats, saying they were "no longer welcome"
The countries targeted by the expulsion order have already pulled their ambassadors from Damascus, but the move was symbolic of how far diplomatic ties have disintegrated over the course of the uprising that began last year in March.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Damascus has decided to take a "reciprocal measure" against ambassadors from the U.S., Britain, Turkey, Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain. A number of French, German, Canadian, Bulgarian and Belgian diplomats also are affected, Makdissi said.
Because of visa delays and hassles over customs clearances and how to distribute the supplies, the U.N. has struggled to deliver aid and it has largely trickled in through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
The U.N. launched the Syrian Humanitarian Forum, a gathering of diplomats to negotiate for access. Ging spoke Tuesday after chairing its latest session, where he said Syria's representatives also expressed support for the new plan.
Ging said many in need in the four provinces have been injured during fighting or have lost jobs or homes. More than 78,000 Syrian refugees were also being helped in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the U.N. refugee agency said.
More than 2,300 Syrian refugees have arrived in Turkey since June 1, increasing the total number of refugees to 26,747, Turkey's disaster and emergency management authority said on its website on Tuesday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of sources on the ground, said Tuesday that 113 soldiers have been killed in clashes with rebel forces across the country since Friday. The figure was impossible to confirm independently, but the Syrian government confirmed nearly 80 soldiers had been killed over the past three days.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this story from Beirut.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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