(Reuters) - Worsening security in Syria means aid groups are unable to reach a million people who may be going hungry as winter closes in, the head of the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday.
The United Nations said this week it would suspend aid operations in Syria as a 20-month civil war tips the country further into anarchy and more civilians get caught in the violence.
But Ertharin Cousin of the WFP said only non-essential U.N. administrative staff had pulled out. Her U.N. agency would continue its work for now and "will keep as many staff in Syria as we can for as long as we can".
She said 2.5 million people needed help and the WFP had reached 1.5 million of them in November, up from 250,000 in April. One major effort as the weather turned colder was to distribute blankets and fuel for cooking and heating.
"Security... doesn't exist," she told Reuters in an interview. She said the WFP lacked access and equipment and "it has been estimated that the numbers (needing help in coming months) can go up to 4 million".
WFP food supplies are mainly distributed by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent society and a few other local partners. The needy include some 1.1 million people who have been forced from their homes and are sharing apartments or camping in public buildings.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in the fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Damascus had been considered safer than other cities until last week when the capital's main airport was shut down and flights into Syria canceled after several rebel attacks.
"The reality is not knowing how the situation is going to evolve, watching the conflict escalate in the north, not knowing what is going to happen in and around Damascus. It is challenging to say what will be the outcome in the coming months," said Cousin.
Some WFP staff had relocated to Damascus from Aleppo, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting and heaviest bombardment in recent months.
"We have not had access to the center of Aleppo for quite some time... It has got even more difficult in the last several weeks for us to operate on the outskirts," she said.