By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Tuesday it aimed to deliver food aid to 500,000 people in Syria "in the coming weeks", double the number of people it thinks it will have fed by the end of this month.
In a statement, the U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) conceded it faced challenges in delivering the food, but said it was increasing its assistance at the request of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and was ready to expand its operations in the country further "when access permits".
"As the conflict continues, Syrians in areas affected by the violence are struggling to feed their families and WFP is deeply concerned about the potential for food insecurity," WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said in the statement.
Elisabeth Byrs, a WFP spokeswoman, told a news conference the agency was aiming to radically increase its efforts in the weeks ahead.
"We are trying to reach 250,000 by the end of April and then double this figure with the goal of reaching half a million in coming weeks," she told reporters.
"It is true, we face challenges," she added, clarifying that the 500,000 people who would be supplied were located at different locations across the country of just under 23 million people.
"We hope to have access in the near future and this is the hope of all humanitarian agencies to assist people inside Syria and along the border."
The WFP's family food parcels typically contain rice, pasta, cooking oil, pulses, sugar and canned meat.
U.N. aid agencies have been largely prevented from operating in Syria but a joint assessment mission carried out last month with the Syrian authorities estimated that at least one million people needed humanitarian aid.
The WFP has been helping 100,000 people a month in cities hard hit by the 13-month conflict, including Homs, Hama, Idlib and rural Damascus.
Family rations from its main warehouses in Damascus, brought in over land from Turkey or by sea to the Syrian port of Tartous, have so far reached 11 of Syria's 14 provinces, where they are distributed by the Red Crescent, according to Byrs.
The WFP hopes to expand its access to 12 governorates by the end of this month, she said.
The agency this week also began distributing hot meals to 1,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, including those living with host families in the northwest town of Ramtha, who are among the many thousands of Syrian refugees to have fled to Jordan, she added.
John Ging, a senior U.N. humanitarian official, said last Friday that the United Nations hoped to get permission from the Syrian government in the coming days to launch a major aid operation to help at least one million people affected by the country's violence.
Syria has recognized there are "serious humanitarian needs" and that action is needed, but logistical issues and visas for aid workers are still being discussed, he said at the time.
More than 9,000 people have died in 13 months of fighting sparked by a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
The U.N. Security Council on Saturday approved the deployment of up to 300 unarmed military observers to monitor a shaky U.N.-backed truce that took effect on April 12.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)