DAMASCUS, SYRIA — Syria’s president sacked a deputy prime minister who met Western officials to discuss the possibility of holding a peace conference, saying he acted without permission. The Tuesday decree was the latest blow to diplomatic efforts to bring the country’s warring parties to the negotiating table.
The sacking came as the U.N.’s health agency said it confirmed 10 polio cases in northeast Syria — the first confirmed outbreak of the highly contagious disease in the country in 14 years. Officials warned the disease threatened to spread among an estimated half-million children who have never received immunization because of the 2 ½ year civil war.
Deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil was fired after a weekend meeting in Geneva that Washington says was with its ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.
The Oct. 26 meeting was to discuss the possibility of holding a conference next month, also in Geneva, to negotiate a settlement to Syria’s conflict, said a U.S. official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the private conversation.
Three days later, President Bashar Assad issued a decree relieving Jamil of his duties for “undertaking activities and meetings outside the homeland without coordination with the government,” Syria’s government news agency SANA said.
Jamil told Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV that he also met with a Russian diplomat and U.N. officials. He did not say whether his moves were coordinated with Assad.
“I am not an employee,” he said. “I am a political activist.”
Assad has said in principle that his government will attend talks, but it will not negotiate with the country’s disparate armed rebel groups.
But sacking Jamil appeared to signal the government was hardening its stance, or that it feared he was jockeying for a position in a post-Assad Syria.
In other diplomatic efforts aimed at convincing warring parties to attend the conference, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi is currently in Syria to meet officials and opposition figures.
A key sticking point is Assad’s future: Much of Syria’s fractured opposition rejects any transition plan in which Assad or his close associates are involved.
Meanwhile, a U.N. official warned cases of polio confirmed in Syria could risk spreading across the war-battered country because of a lack of access to clean water, sewage infrastructure and a lack of vaccinations.
World Health Organization spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer said they confirmed 10 cases among babies and toddlers, all under two. Rosenbauer said they were awaiting lab results on another 12 cases showing polio symptoms.
The polio virus usually infects children in unsanitary conditions through consuming food or drink contaminated with feces. It attacks the nerves and can kill or paralyze, and can spread widely and unnoticed before it starts crippling children.
“This is a communicable disease - with population movements it can travel to other areas,” said Rosenbauer. “So the risk is high of spread across the region.”
Neighboring Lebanon and Jordan are likely to be at particular risk because the two countries have absorbed the bulk of Syrian refugees fleeing war-torn areas. The refugees often flee places where children have not been vaccinated. The poorest refugees often crowd, several families together, into apartments and dilapidated shacks.
In an interview with The Associated Press in Damascus, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said his organization and WHO planned to immunize 2.4 million children throughout the country. Over 500,000 have never been vaccinated against the disease.
Lake said that he had discussed issues concerning access to war zones with senior Syrian officials. He said they had not begun negotiating with rebels.
“Vaccinations and immunizations have absolutely no political content, they have no relationship to any military issues and therefore there is every reason … (to) believe we will gain access into these communities,” he said.
“Anytime you have half a million or more children who have not been reached with lifesaving vaccinations, then it is very urgent that you be able to get in to vaccinate them,” he added.
Syria said it had launched a vaccination campaign around the country days after the Geneva-based WHO said it had received reports of children showing symptoms of polio in Syria’s Deir el-Zour province, but the campaign faces difficulty with lack of access.
Nearly all Syrian children were vaccinated against the disease before the civil war began more than 2 ½ years ago. Polio was last reported in Syria in 1999.
But Syria’s civil war has caused medical and other government services in many areas to collapse, particularly in rebel-held territory. Both armed clashes and government blockades prevent medical workers and supplies from reaching rebel-held towns, activists said.
One blockaded rebel enclave is the besieged western Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh, where activists reported last week that residents were eating boiled grape leaves and raw olives because they had run out of food.
Activists had reported in September that six people there had died of illnesses related to malnutrition.
On Tuesday, rebels and Syrian forces observed a ceasefire to allow nearly 2,000 residents to flee the neighborhood.
Desperate men, women and children fearfully crossed over a no-man’s-land, while some elderly and ill residents were carried by Red Crescent workers. Young men were rounded up by government forces and taken away.
Around 3,000 residents of the suburb had also been able to flee the area late August during a rare cease-fire.
“We received calls from inside Moadamiyeh and from the people who are outside the place that they would prefer to go out because it’s not only a matter of eating, but also a matter of security,” said Agnes Mariam, a controversial pro-Assad nun who negotiated the evacuation.
The Syrian conflict, which began as a largely peaceful uprising against President Bashar Assad in March 2011, has triggered a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale, killing more than 100,000 people, driving nearly 7 million more from their homes and devastating cities and towns.
Associated Press writers Darko Bandic in Damascus, John Heilprin in Geneva, Matthew Lee in Washington, Bassem Mroue and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report