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UN aid flight takes off from Iraq for Syria on mission to deliver food

ARBIL, Iraq--The first United Nations aid flight from Iraq to Syria took off on Sunday after being delayed for several days due to bad weather, an AFP journalist said.

The plane departed the Arbil airport in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region around 3:30 p.m., and was expected to arrive in Qamishli in northeastern Syria some 40 minutes later.

“Over the next few days, we will be sending to Qamishli ... 400 tons of food,” Abeer Etefa, senior Middle East spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Programme, told AFP.

The flight on Sunday was carrying about 40 metric tons of aid, Etefa said.

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and children's agency UNICEF were also to send aid into Syria via air.

The airlift, which has the go-ahead from both the Syrian and Iraqi governments, had been expected to begin on Thursday, but was delayed by a storm that shuttered the airport in Qamishli.

Amin Awad, who heads the UNHCR Syria response, has said the supplies are desperately needed in the hard-to-reach areas as the war-fatigued population braces for what is expected to be one of the harshest winters in a century, he said.

UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler earlier told AFP that the “region of northeastern Syria has been very difficult to reach, very perilous to reach, since May.”

“UNHCR has operated an airlift from Damascus to Qamishli from July,” but “this is to my knowledge the first international airlift,” Kessler said.

The original plan was for aid to be transported into north and northeastern Syria by truck, but “there was a shift in the elements that controlled that road and the border and we shifted to an airlift,” Awad said.

He said airlifting aid into Syria would not be sustainable in the long run.

The UNHCR meanwhile plans to spend US$195 million to help “winterize” Syria and the surrounding countries.

As part of the program, the agency has begun distributing items such as isolation tents, plastic sheeting and warm clothing, especially for children and other vulnerable people, as well as cash for fuel, Awad said.

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