By Erika Solomon and Stephen Kalin

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hunger is a growing threat to Syrians living in regions hit by the civil war and children are now dying of malnutrition, according to aid groups and activists.

Cases of malnutrition in Syria are still rare but they were unheard before the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad broke out in March 2011.

Syrian activists have filmed the bodies of several skeletal children who doctors said died of malnutrition. The most recent victim was one-year-old Rana Obeid, who died on Tuesday. Footage showed her with her ribs protruding and belly swollen.

Doctors said she was the sixth child to die from malnutrition in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya.

Such cases are hard to confirm by international aid groups, which have little access to areas hit by violence. But groups like Save the Children, which released a report on hunger on Tuesday, say such incidents point to a potential crisis.

"You have rampant inflation of food prices, lack of access to food and a huge problem reaching people in need. These are all the ingredients that lead to a food security crisis. There isn't strong data but there is a strong reason to worry," said Save the Children's George Graham.

"The likelihood of a crisis seems high and imminent."

Mouadamiya is controlled by rebels but under blockade by Assad's forces. The United Nations says aid workers have been unable to visit the town for over a year due to fighting.

"Food is only dozens of meters away and our children are dying because of a checkpoint or a sniper," said Omar, a doctor in the town, speaking by Skype.

Save the Children cited reports suggesting a quarter of Syrian families go as much as a week at a time without being able to buy food. Food is often available but prices have doubled in the last year and poverty is rising.

According to the World Food Program (WFP), about 4.25 million people need food aid. It targets 3 million people for aid a month. But Graham said other aid groups assess that at least 10 million people face problems getting food.

"We have a situation where millions of people are not being given any help at all," he said.

U. N. officials say they are struggling to find ways to enter combat zones. Laure Chadraoui, a WFP spokeswoman in Beirut, said aid workers had resorted to air-lifting food to some areas.


In a related development, the WFP said it would drop hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees from its food aid program in Lebanon as it struggles to keep pace with a growing refugee population.

More than 750,000 refugees have poured into neighboring Lebanon since the conflict began. Nearly 15,000 Syrians register as refugees with the United Nations in Lebanon each week, pushing aid agencies to scramble for funds to assist them.

Lynne Miller, heads of the WFP in Lebanon, said about 30 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon would no longer receive food vouchers from the program as it tries to allocate scarce resources to those who most need help.

She said the decision was made after an assessment determined that those refugees can meet their needs through other avenues and do not require food aid from WFP.

The change will likely deal a blow to many refugees struggling to make ends meet in Lebanon, where there are no formal camps to provide a safety net, as in Jordan and Turkey.

Under the current system, Syrian refugees receive $27 worth of food vouchers from the WFP every month which they can redeem for food at shops.

The United Nations says it has received only 27 percent of the international aid it requested from international donors last year to help Syrian refugees across the Middle East.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)


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