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Billions in aid pledged for Syria at London conference

World leaders pledged billions of dollars on Thursday to help conflict-hit Syrians, at a London conference overshadowed by the collapse of peace talks in Geneva.

[LONDON] World leaders pledged billions of dollars on Thursday to help conflict-hit Syrians, at a London conference overshadowed by the collapse of peace talks in Geneva.

The European Union, Germany, Britain and the United States were among those making major donations to areas including food aid, education and allowing Syrians displaced from their homeland to find work.

But hopes that the package could make a major difference inside Syria were weighed down by the suspension Wednesday of peace talks in Geneva until February 25.

The decision came as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, supported by Russian air strikes, stepped up their offensive near the major northern city of Aleppo, forcing nearly 40,000 civilians to flee.

Neighbouring countries including Jordan and Lebanon told the conference of their struggle to deal with the influx of millions of Syrians and urged nations at the conference to do more to help them.

The mood among many leaders was bleak, reflecting frustration at the halt on Wednesday of the so-called proximity talks in Geneva which were seen as the best hope for peace since the conflict erupted in March 2011.

"After five years of fighting, it's pretty incredible that as we come here in London, the situation on the ground is actually worse, not better," US Secretary of State John Kerry said.

"If people are reduced to eating grass and leaves and killing stray animals in order to survive, that's something that should tear at the conscience of all civilised people," he added.

Among the biggest donors were the EU and its member states, which pledged more than three billion euros this year.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose open-door policy for refugees has proved deeply controversial in Germany, offered 2.3 billion euros (S$3.6 billion) by 2018.

Britain announced £1.2 billion (S$2.44 million) and the United States US$890 million.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is co-hosting the conference, said a "new approach" was needed to address "one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time".

His government, which has agreed to take 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, argues that those displaced are best helped close to home and wants to support neighbouring countries in doing so.

Some 4.6 million Syrians have fled to nearby countries - Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt - while hundreds of thousands have journeyed to Europe.

Jordan's King Abdullah II said that one in five people living in his country was now a refugee and that it had "reached our limit".

Lebanon's Prime Minister Tammam Salam called for "empathy" and "courage".

The United Nations is appealing for nearly US$8 billion, while regional governments are seeking an extra US$1.2 billion.

Organisers have already agreed that participants should at least "double" their contributions from 2015, when they raised US$3.3 billion.

Among those drumming up donations was Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who is campaigning for US$1.4 billion of donations to help educate children inside Syria and in refugee camps.

"The key thing about the future of Syria is the education of the Syrian refugee children and that is how we can ensure the future is strong," the 18-year-old said.

Representatives of Syrian charities attending the event noted that many more colleagues had been unable to make it as they had not been granted visas.

During one session, Rouba Mhaissen, founder of Sawa For Development And Aid, asked how many Syrians were in the room - and only two people put their hands up.

Fadi Hallisso, co-founder of Basmeh and Zeitooneh (Smile and Olive) which works with refugees in Turkey and Lebanon, stressed the importance of protecting Syrians as a priority.

"We are at the beginning of the right track but we have to watch to see that countries are committing to what they have pledged," he told AFP.

But he added that he was "not over-optimistic either because what is the point of constructing a school if it is bombarded?"