Geneva: More than four million people inside Syria are in desperate need of aid, up sharply from 2.5 million in September, the UN’s humanitarian agency said on Tuesday.
“We are watching a humanitarian tragedy unfold before our eyes,” Valerie Amos, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told reporters in Geneva.
A graphic from her office showed how the need for humanitarian aid had spiralled from March last year, when some one million people were listed, to 2.5 million in September and four million by January 2013.
She described the situation in the war-torn country as “devastating.”
The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed in the near two-year conflict, while some 2.5 million have been displaced by the fighting but remain in Syria.
Earlier on Tuesday, the UN’s refugee agency said the number of Syrians who have fled their conflict-ravaged homeland has now topped 850,000.
Amos said more than 250,000 had fled over a two-month period.
Only a year ago, the United Nations said 33,000 Syrians had fled the conflict which erupted in March 2011 as the regime of President Bashar Al Assad launched a bloody crackdown on protests.
The United Nations has warned that refugee numbers could reach 1.1 million within months in what has become an increasingly radicalised civil war in the nation of almost 21 million.
Most of the refugees have fled to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
In ongoing violence in Syria, six children were among at least 19 people killed in an apparent surface-to-surface missile strike on the northern city of Aleppo, a monitoring group said on Tuesday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said “it is likely a surface-to-surface missile strike” had been fired at Jabal Badro on the edge of Aleppo city late on Monday.
Six children and three women were among at least 19 people killed and “the death toll is likely to rise as bodies are being rescued from under the rubble,” the Britain-based Observatory said.
There were no planes overhead when the missile hit Jabal Badro, according to residents cited by the Observatory, and the extent of the destruction indicated a surface-to-surface missile was likely used to strike the area, watchdog director Rami Abdul Rahman said.
Meanwhile, Russia on Tuesday announced that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mua’alem would visit Moscow next week for talks aimed at finding a way out of the two-year Syria conflict.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Mua’alem would be in Moscow on February 25 “to discuss the Syria crisis and measures aimed at beginning dialogue” with the opposition.
But Gatilov — Russia’s pointman on the conflict — added that Syria’s National Coalition opposition leader Muath Al Khatib had still not accepted an invitation to visit Russia later this month.
Moscow appeared to have hoped to have the two visits coincide so they could present an opportunity for the Syrian government and the opposition to hold their first direct negotiations.
“There has been no specific decision on this account,” Gatilov said of Al Khatib’s visit. “There are no concrete dates for his visit to Moscow.”
Al Khatib had said earlier he would only be willing to meet Russian officials at a neutral venue due to Moscow’s support for Al Assad.