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UN nearly doubles humanitarian appeal for Syria

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UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations nearly doubled its humanitarian appeal for Syria on Friday, seeking $347 million for people in need, including more than half a million children forced to flee their homes.

With the civil war intensifying, the number of people in need of assistance has doubled since July to 2.5 million, prompting the dramatic increase in the appeal for aid.

The plea comes even as the original appeal for $180 million is only half-funded. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged donors to increase their contributions.

"At the moment, the entire civilian population inside Syria is gripped by fear and despair," John Ging, a senior U.N. humanitarian official, said after the U.N. humanitarian plan was launched Friday. "Humanitarian action is not a solution in conflict. The solution in conflict is political resolution ... but while there is failure to find that process ... we in the humanitarian community have to step up and do more in ever more dangerous circumstances to help people who are suffering more."

Activists say more than 23,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad began in March 2011.

The European Union announced Friday it will provide an additional €60 million ($76 million) in humanitarian aid for Syria.

The announcement came days after France decided to provide direct aid and money to five rebel-held Syrian cities as it intensifies efforts to weaken Assad. It was the first such move by a western power amid mounting calls for the international community to do more to prevent bloodshed.

In Italy on Friday, U.S. senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham urged Washington to help arm Syria's rebels with weapons and create a safe zone inside the country for a transition government.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said that more than 1.2 million people are displaced inside Syria, half of them children. Another nearly 250,000 Syrian refugees are in neighboring Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, including more than 100,000 people who were registered as refugees in August alone, Nesirky said.

Peter Maurer, the new president of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, said Friday he held "positive" talks with Assad this week on key humanitarian and human rights issues — freeing up the delivery of badly needed aid and gaining access to detainees.

He said Assad and other ministers generally agreed on the need to reduce barriers to delivering aid, and the president "expressed his readiness" to address the issue of prison detainees.

The U.N. plan was launched at the Syria Humanitarian Forum in Geneva, which brought together more than 350 participants from governments, regional and international organizations and U.N. humanitarian agencies to mobilize resources to help those uprooted by the conflict.

The updated U.N. humanitarian plan focuses on health, food, livelihoods, infrastructure repairs, community services, education and shelter in conflict areas including Homs, Hama, Idlib, Damascus, Deir el-Zour and Aleppo, as well as areas hosting large numbers of internally displaced people.

With thousands of Syrians fleeing the fighting, the U.N. refugee agency said its share of the new $347 million appeal is doubling to $41.7 million.

The agency is seeking funds for household items, medical assistance, rehabilitation of shelters and counseling of displaced populations, spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Geneva. The agency is also seeking help to provide financial assistance for 200,000 people considered vulnerable and to encourage displaced Syrian children to return to school, he said.

The EU said its new pledge brings the total aid donated by the 27-nation bloc to more than €200 million ($253 million) since the conflict began in March 2011.

The new EU funds will go to agencies that provide shelter and medical aid and for other humanitarian efforts, Kristalina Georgieva, EU commissioner for humanitarian aid, said at a foreign ministers meeting in Cyprus.

At the meeting, British Foreign Minister William Hague stressed that EU countries can only provide non-lethal aid to Syrian opposition groups because of an EU arms embargo that renders the supply of any weapons illegal.

French officials have acknowledged providing communications and other non-lethal equipment to Syrian rebel forces, but say they won't provide weapons without international agreement.

"At the moment we have a European Union arms embargo on Syria; it's not possible or legal for any EU nation to send weapons to anybody in Syria, and therefore our chosen route, and is the same route of France and the United States, is to give non-lethal assistance, and we're doing that," Hague told reporters.

The three U.S. senators took a tougher stance as they addressed the Ambrosetti Forum, a gathering of political and business leaders on the shores of Lake Como in Italy.

McCain blasted President Barack Obama, who defeated him in the 2008 presidential election, for recently setting the "red line" for Syria at use of chemical weapons.

"If you're Bashar Assad ... maybe you interpret that to mean that you can do anything short of chemical weapons before the United States will intervene," he said.

The new U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is scheduled to arrive in Cairo on Sunday evening for several days of talks before heading to Damascus.

His spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, announced that Mokhtar Lamani, a Canadian diplomat of Moroccan origin, will head the Damascus office for Brahimi. He said Lamani is well suited for the job, having served as a special Arab League envoy to Iraq.

Associated Press writers Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, Dan Perry in Cernobbio, Italy, and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.