BEIRUT (AP) — As Syria's civil war rages into its third year, millions of children in the country are at risk of malnutrition and face severe food shortages, an international aid organization has warned.
Save the Children said four million Syrians — more than half of them children — are unable to produce or buy enough food.
Thousands are trapped in battle zones in and around Syria's major cities, such as Aleppo in the north and in the central city of Homs, cut off from access to all but the bare minimum foodstuffs needed to survive, the U.S.-based group said in a dramatic report released Monday.
Food shortages are compounded by an explosion in prices of basic staples, the group said, adding that one in 20 children in areas around the capital of Damascus is severely malnourished.
Ever since the conflict erupted in March 2011, leading aid groups have demanded that the warring sides — Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and the rebels fighting to overthrow his regime — enable access to civilians trapped in the fighting. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict and millions have been uprooted from their homes.
But their calls have consistently met obstacles.
"The world has stood and watched as the children of Syria have been shot, shelled and traumatized by the horror of war," said Roger Hearn, Save the Children's regional director for the Middle East. "The conflict has already left thousands of children dead, and is now threatening their means of staying alive."
The United States and Russia brokered an agreement for Syria to give up its chemical weapons but U.N. diplomats say they are at odds on details of a Security Council resolution spelling out how it should be done and the possible consequences if Syria doesn't comply.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Tuesday that U.N. chemical weapons inspectors would return to Syria as soon as Wednesday.
In Damascus, however, a government official said the issue of the inspectors' return to Syria and its timing was "still under discussion." The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
On their previous trip to the country, the U.N. team led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom complied a report that said nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack near Damascus. The U.S. and its allies say Assad's regime was behind the attack, which according to Washington killed 1,400 people. Activist groups say the death toll was significantly lower, but still in the hundreds.
Damascus blames the rebels for the attack, and Russia, a close ally of Assad, said the U.N. report does not provide enough evidence to blame the Syrian government. It has also demanded that U.N. inspectors probe other attacks that allegedly included chemical agents.
"We are pleased that our call for U.N. inspectors to return to Syria to investigate other episodes has brought results," Ryabkov told the Russian parliament Tuesday, according to state news agency RIA Novosti. He did not elaborate.
On Monday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition accused government forces of tightening their months-long siege in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where the August attack took place.
"Assad's forces are starving people to death in those areas," the coalition claimed. "Famine looms in the horizon as more than two million people remain under siege."
At the U.N., the head of the organization's World Food Program demanded Monday that a potential cease-fire agreement include access for aid workers.
Ertharin Cousin told The Associated Press that an agreement, which will be discussed at the start of the annual U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, envisions a cessation of hostilities so chemical experts trying to bring Syria's stockpile under international control can travel across the country, including to many conflict areas where WFP and other humanitarian workers have been unable to bring in desperately needed aid.
WFP is currently feeding 3 million people inside Syria and 1.2 million in neighboring countries. Cousin said the goal is to step up supplies so that 4 million internally displaced people and 1.5 million refugees are getting food by the end of October.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.