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Syria allows U.N. to step up food aid

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria's government has authorized the World Food Programme (WFP) to extend its reach in the war-torn country where 2.5 million people are suffering from hunger, the United Nations agency's chief said on Wednesday.

The WFP has only been able to feed up to 1.5 million people in Syria each month because of the fighting and a lack of local partners capable of delivering aid.

Its activities have been restricted because the government stopped it developing formal relationships with many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Syria, said WFP executive-director Ertharin Cousin.

"We have now been given that authority from the government," Cousin told a news briefing in Geneva.

She said President Bashar al-Assad's government, locked in an escalating war with rebels trying to topple him, submitted a list of 110 local aid agencies to the WFP a week ago.

"We have assessed the operational capacity of that 110 and we have identified 44 NGOs on that list that will give us the ability to scale up to another 1 million persons," said Cousin, an American who has led the Rome-based agency since April 2012.

"The challenge is we have seen more attacks on our trucks in the last two months from the opposition. We can usually talk to them and get our food back, but it makes it more difficult to go into these areas," she said.

Volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, WFP's main local partner, deliver most WFP supplies but are overstretched.

The WFP aims to reach both government and opposition-controlled areas in all of Syria's 14 provinces, but in some places heavy fighting has restricted access, said WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs.

The WFP is distributing wheat flour to rural families to help them bake bread.

It is also planning to distribute much-needed fuel to bakeries as part of its operation, said Cousin. Shortages of fuel and flour have made bread production erratic across the country and people often wait hours to buy loaves.

(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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