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GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday it plans to continue providing food for 1.5 million people in Syria until at least June next year, a sign it expects hunger to persist in a protracted civil war.
The United Nations agency set the target of 1.5 million months ago and finally reached it in September, after managing to deliver food supplies to just 850,000 people in August.
"It is a record amount," Daly Belgasmi, WFP regional director for the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, told Reuters in Geneva.
Belgasmi said the WFP planned to continue distributing to 1.5 million hungry civilians until mid-2013 under a fresh U.N. humanitarian appeal due to be launched in January for Syria which had a pre-war population was 22 million.
"What we see today is that it is a crisis that threatens to last," he told a news briefing.
The WFP had no information on the Syrian government's food security stocks, but fuel for cooking and heating "may be an issue" this winter for many residents, especially the estimated 1.2 million who have been displaced, he said.
"We have full support that we can have access to Syrians without any distinction," said Belgasmi, who held talks with senior Syrian officials in Damascus last week.
"In the case of Syria, the market looks stable inside. You can go and see oil, vegetables, onions, tomatoes - for how long we don't have a real indication," he said.
But some areas remain cut off to aid workers due to fighting between Syrian government forces and armed militants locked in a 19-month conflict that has escalated into a civil war.
WFP food is distributed mainly by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other local partners. Belgasmi estimated that distribution of a maximum of one-third of it was monitored, adding "but we know that the food is going to the right direction".
"We do not provide any food to any (warring) party, we provide food to those who are in need," he said.
In all, up to three million people in Syria are likely to need food, crop and livestock aid, according to a joint assessment by the WFP, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the government.
The Syrian crisis is also driving up basic food prices across the region, Belgasmi said.
"Syrian farmers, they used to be really very strong suppliers of food in the region. They used to export over 2 million tons of vegetables and something like over 200,0000 animal products and millions of tons of cereals to the region. All that has stopped," he told a news briefing.
"So you have an increase in the cost of food commodities in the neighboring countries," he said.
The WFP is also distributing food vouchers or supplies to 120,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to four neighboring countries - Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
In all, more than 358,000 Syrian refugees have registered in the four countries, according to the UNHCR which has forecast that there could be 700,000 by year-end.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jon Hemming