BEIRUT (AP) — The World Food Program aims to feed 2.5 million Syrians next month, up from 1.7 million today, as more Syrians are displaced by their country's civil war and the economy is disintegrating, a spokeswoman said Friday.
Also, negotiations over the release of 21 U.N. peacekeepers held by Syrian rebels appeared to have hit an impasse Friday. The rebels say they will release the U.N. troops, all Filipinos, only after Syrian regime forces withdraw from the area where the hostages have been held since Wednesday, a Philippine government official said. The Syrian regime is unlikely to comply.
The kidnapping has underlined potential complications from the Syria conflict. The U.N. personnel were monitoring a 40-year-old truce between Israel and Syria when they were captured. Israel is concerned about the Syria fighting spilling across the frontier.
Russia's foreign minister said in a TV interview Friday that Syrian President Bashar Assad will not step down, meaning that the civil war will likely drag on.
Since the start of the Syria conflict two years ago, nearly 4 million of Syria's 22 million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting, according to U.N. estimates. This includes those who fled to neighboring countries and some 2 million who sought shelter inside Syria.
In one recent wave, more than 20,000 families fled fighting in the northeastern Raqqa province, seeking refuge in the neighboring district of Deir el-Zour, according to the World Food Program. The U.N. agency said that in recent days it distributed food to some 20,000 people in public shelters in Deir el-Zour. More food trucks are to deliver food there Friday.
Earlier this week, Syrian rebels completed their capture of the provincial capital of Raqqa after several days of fighting. The takeover marked the first time rebels seized a major Syrian city. Raqqa has a population of about 500,000.
In addition to the internally displaced, Syrians who remain in their homes are also in increasing need of food aid, the agency said. The Syrian economy has been hit hard by the two-year-old conflict, and basics such as food and fuel are becoming scarce in many areas.
"The needs are huge and are growing," said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the WFP. "It's kind of a vicious cycle, the collapse of the economy, and more and more people are displaced."
She said the U.N. agency distributed food to 1.7 million Syrians in February, with the help of local partners. The agency plans to reach 2 million in March and 2.5 million in April, she said.
The uprising erupted two years ago, with peaceful protests deteriorating into a brutal civil war, initially in response to a harsh regime crackdown on dissent. More than 70,000 people have been killed, according to U.N. estimates.
Assad has dug in, aided by powerful allies Russia, China and Iran, and the conflict has been locked in a stalemate. Despite some military and diplomatic gains by the rebels, neither side has been able to score a breakthrough.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the BBC on Friday that Russia would not pressure Assad to step down. "It's not for me to decide, it's not for anybody else to decide, except the Syrian people," he said.
Assad "is not going to leave," Lavrov said. "We know this for sure, and all those who get in touch with him know that he is not bluffing."