The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has begun providing critical humanitarian aid to more than 2,000 people displaced by the escalating conflict in the South Ossetia region of Georgia, UN News Center informs.

In response to a request from the Georgian Government, WFP distributed a 10-day food ration to more than 1,900 displaced people living in shelters in the capital, Tbilisi, with more distributions taking place today.

“The number of people in need of our help is rising by the hour,” said WFP Georgia Country Director Lola Castro, adding that so far, 2,750 internally displaced persons (IDPs) had been registered in Tbilisi alone. Many more people were living with relatives or in unofficial shelters.

Heavy fighting first erupted on Thursday night between Georgian and South Ossetian forces, leading to a large number of casualties and uprooting thousands from their homes.

The crisis has led to an international outcry from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and world leaders, who have voiced grave concern at the mounting humanitarian toll and called for an immediate end to the fighting. The violence has prompted the Security Council to meet four times over the course of the past three days to discuss the violence, which is now feared to be spreading beyond the South Ossetia region.

WFP said today’s distributions are mainly targeted at people outside the capital. However, access to them is restricted by continuing Russian air raids, making it extremely dangerous for WFP staff trying to reach them. In addition to food aid, the agency is also offering its logistical support to other humanitarian organisations.

WFP already has an existing food assistance operation in the country, targeting some 212,000 people – mainly poor rural communities, as well as primary schoolchildren, tuberculosis patients and people living with HIV/AIDS.

The agency reports that tens of thousands of people have fled South Ossetia over the past four days, most of them to other parts of Georgia. Russia says about 30,000 people have crossed the border into neighbouring North Ossetia, which is inside Russia, where the Government says it will take care of the humanitarian needs.

A joint assessment carried out on Sunday by WFP and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Gori, which has also been affected by the conflict, found the Georgian town – with a population of about 40,000 – to be almost deserted.

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, today welcomed reports that two humanitarian corridors out of South Ossetia – one reportedly to North Ossetia and one to the south to Georgia proper – will be established for civilians caught up in the ongoing conflict.

Mr. Guterres said humanitarian access and safe passage for uprooted civilians and the aid workers trying to help them was now crucial.

“The conflict has caused civilian casualties and more are at risk,” he said. “Many people need help and many are seeking safety elsewhere. It is essential that humanitarian agencies be able to reach the affected and the displaced, and that those trapped in conflict areas be granted passage to safer areas as soon as possible. It is absolutely essential that both sides respect humanitarian principles and ensure the protection and safety of civilians.”

The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is expected to rise to as many as 20,000, according to UNHCR, while about 5,000 South Ossetians have already fled to the neighbouring North Ossetia-Alania region of Russia.

UNHCR, which has an office in the North Ossetia city of Vladikavkaz, said it stands ready to provide humanitarian support should Russian authorities request it. The agency has some aid stockpiles in both Georgia and Russia.

UNHCR plans to provide basic non-food aid items and temporary shelter where required, and has already activated the replenishment of stocks from its central emergency stockpile.

Some 300 of the most vulnerable new arrivals from South Ossetia, including women and children, were transferred over the weekend from Gori to safer quarters near Tbilisi, where they received immediate assistance from UNHCR, WFP and other humanitarian agencies, in collaboration with the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation.