- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 26, 2012

TEL RIFAAT, Syria — The days are still warm across the fertile plains of northern Syria around Aleppo, but night brings a chill — an ominous harbinger of winter’s approach and the deepening of the already severe humanitarian crisis gripping a country wracked by civil war.

Warm temperatures and plentiful food have cushioned the blow somewhat for hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced from their homes or living in refugee camps across the border.

But the arrival of near-freezing temperatures could mean greater suffering and even deaths from exposure, as international aid agencies scramble to cope.

Among the first things to go will be the practice of sleeping outside to avoid the artillery and airstrikes that rain down late-night death on homes.

“Most people sleep in the fields at night, out of fear of the bombardments of the towns,” said Abu Mohammed, who has taken to sleeping in the olive orchards outside Tel Rifaat, a rebel-controlled town north of Aleppo. “In the winter the suffering will only increase.”

Like many people in Syria, he asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution should the government retake his town.

As the second winter approaches in an 18-month-old conflict that has claimed more than 20,000 lives, fighting has spread to many more parts of the country and people’s resources are dangerously low.

An agricultural breadbasket, northern Syria has food, but not everyone can afford it.

In many instances, families are forced to flee to refugee camps on the border, not only for fear of fighting but also because they have run out of money for food.

The length of the conflict also is wearing people down, leaving them even more vulnerable, said Sybella Wilkes of the U.N. Refugee Agency.

“The more people are displaced, the longer they are living in difficult situations of hardship, the more stretched their coping skills are,” she said.

The U.N. agency is planning a new international appeal to help the refugees on the borders, as well as those still in the country, including winterizing tents and distributing blankets and warm clothing.

“Already the displaced are suffering from cold in the evening — this is a real concern,” Ms. Wilkes said, adding that the number of registered refugees has far exceeded earlier estimates, increasing from about 20,000 in June to 250,000 now.

Another 1.5 million Syrians are displaced inside the country, while an additional 1 million are in urgent need of assistance because they have run out of money for food and other essentials, according to U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliassan. A $180 million emergency response plan is only half-funded, he added.

Meanwhile, two suicide car bombers struck Syria’s army command headquarters Wednesday, killing four guards and engulfing a key symbol of President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime in flames, state-run media and witnesses said.

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