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U.N. humanitarian chief says to visit Syria this week

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. humanitarian affairs chief Valerie Amos said on Monday that the Syrian government had agreed to allow her to visit the conflict-wracked country later this week, an announcement that followed sharp international criticism of Damascus for not letting her into the country.

"As requested by the Secretary-General (Ban Ki-moon), my aim is to urge all parties to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so that they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies," she said in a statement.

Amos said she plans to be in Syria from Wednesday to Friday.

Syria's decision to allow Amos into the country comes after intensifying international criticism, including a rare rebuke of Damascus by the U.N. Security Council last week for failing to grant the U.N. humanitarian chief access to Syrian conflict zones.

It was not immediately clear whether Amos would have the unhindered access she has been demanding. Several Western diplomats told Reuters privately that they were concerned Damascus appeared to have waited until it "finished the job" by decimating Homs before allowing Amos into the country.

Syria's state media said that Amos will meet with the Syrian foreign minister and the head of Syria's Red Crescent. It also said that Amos will visit several areas in Syria but did not specify where she would go.

The United Nations says that over 7,500 civilians have died in Syria's nearly year-long crackdown on protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.S. State Department said it was encouraged by Amos' announcement of her trip, and called on Syrian authorities to give her free access to ensure that humanitarian aid gets in.

"This is another opportunity for this situation to be settled and for the violence to end, and we call on the Syrian regime to take advantage of it because the horrific situation there just cannot continue," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington.

Nuland said the United States remained "seriously concerned" by the Syrian government's delay in granting Amos permission to visit and in allowing humanitarian organizations to get relief supplies flowing.

"She's got to get in and she's got to get unfettered access. If this is a first step towards an improvement, we have to see. It's another test for the Assad regime which it can pass or it can fail," Nuland said.

The joint U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, will travel to Damascus on Saturday for his first visit since being appointed to the post, the Arab League said on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao and Philip Barbara)