Agencies distribute food, blankets, cash as hunger and cold threaten Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) – Aid agencies delivered food, blankets and cash to hundreds of displaced families in Kabul on Wednesday as humanitarian assistance begins to trickle into Afghanistan following warnings the country faces potentially catastrophic famine this winter.

The distribution of aid to 324 families represents a tiny fraction of the needs in Afghanistan, which faces a severe drought as well as a near collapse of its economy following the withdrawal of Western support.

Chilly weather on Monday underlined the urgency in getting assistance to thousands of displaced people in the capital, many having fled from the provinces and sleeping in tents or improvised accommodation around the city.

As people lined up inside the UN compound for handouts of food and basic household items, larger crowds gathered outside, many desperate for help.

“We got this assistance, but we cannot spend the winter with it,” said Bibi Pashtoon. “Winter is difficult, and we have nothing except God, and we need more help.”

But the challenge of providing the aid is massive. As well as farmers and rural people displaced by drought, poverty has extended into the cities where widespread unemployment has forced many to try to sell their household goods to raise money.

“Around 50,000 Afghan people from different provinces of the country have been displaced because of recent conflicts and are in Kabul. Our assistance continues to needy people every week,” said UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch.

Even before the Taliban’s victory over the Western-backed government in Kabul two months ago, more than 18 million Afghans, or about half the population, needed humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Other UN estimates suggest that as much as 97% of the country’s population could be plunged into poverty by next year in a worst-case scenario.

The Group of 20 major economies pledged this week to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and the United States has promised separately to help relieve the immediate hardship facing millions of Afghans as the cold season begins.

However donor nations have been reluctant to give any funds directly to the new Taliban government, meaning the aid is likely to be channeled through international agencies.

Wednesday’s distribution was overseen by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Program and the Danish aid agency DACAAR.

(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)

More expensive food, rents boost U.S. inflation; further increases anticipated

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. consumer prices increased solidly in September as Americans paid more for food, rent and a range of other goods, putting pressure on the Biden administration to urgently resolve strained supply chains, which are hampering economic growth.

With prices likely to rise further in the months ahead following a recent surge in the costs of energy products, the report from the Labor Department on Wednesday could test Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell’s repeated assertion that high inflation is transitory. Powell and the White House have blamed supply chain bottlenecks for the high inflation.

Supply chains have been gummed up by robust demand as economies emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus has caused a global shortage of workers needed to produce raw materials and move goods from factories to consumers.

“Today’s number, with food price inflation and shelter inflation moving higher, suggests growing pressure on consumers,” said Seema Shah, chief strategist at Principal Global Investors. “Keep in mind too that the recent rise in oil prices hasn’t yet fed through to the numbers – that’s still to come, while the renewed rise in car prices is also likely to drive inflation numbers higher in the coming months.”

The consumer price index rose 0.4% last month after climbing 0.3% in August. Food prices jumped 0.9% after increasing 0.4% in the prior month. Owners’ equivalent rent of primary residence, which is what a homeowner would receive from renting a home, increased 0.4% after gaining 0.3% in August.

Food and rents accounted for more than half of the increase in the CPI in September. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the overall CPI would rise 0.3%.

In the 12 months through September, the CPI increased 5.4% after advancing 5.3% on a year-on-year basis in August.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI climbed 0.2% after edging up 0.1% in August, the smallest gain in six months. In addition to rents, the co-called core CPI was lifted by a 1.3% increase in the cost of new motor vehicles, which marked the fifth straight month of gains above 1%.

A global semiconductor shortage has forced auto manufacturers to cut production. There were also increases in the prices of household furnishings and operations last month. Consumers also paid more for motor vehicle insurance.

But prices for airline fares and apparel as well as used cars and trucks all fell. The so-called core CPI rose 4.0% on a year-on-year basis last month, matching the gain in August.

HIGH ENERGY PRICES

Oil prices jumped on Monday to the highest levels in years amid a rebound in global demand after the pandemic. Though Brent crude futures fell on Wednesday, prices remained above $80 a barrel. Natural gas prices have also surged.

Expensive energy products would add to accelerating wage growth in exerting upward pressure on inflation. The government reported last week that average hourly earnings increased by the most in seven months on a year-on-year basis in September because of worker shortages.

With the number of people voluntarily quitting their jobs hitting a record high in August and at least 10.4 million unfilled positions, wage inflation is set to rise further.

“The right place to look for inflation is not just in the so-called inflation data itself, but also in the tighter labor market and associated wage growth,” said Andrew Hollenhorst, chief U.S. economist at Citigroup in New York.

“Firms confident of passing on input costs may make higher energy prices a driver of broader inflation.”

September’s CPI report will have no impact on the Fed’s timeline to begin scaling back its massive monthly bond-buying program. The U.S. central bank signaled last month that it could start tapering its asset purchases as soon as November.

Economists expect that announcement will come at the Nov. 2-3 policy meeting.

“The central bank has already said that inflation has met the threshold for tapering, it’s the job market that hasn’t,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “The CPI could garner a reaction in the bond market as it could alter market expectations for the timing of the first rate hike by the Fed, which in our opinion, is still far off on the horizon.”

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure for its flexible 2% target, the core personal consumption expenditures price index, increased 3.6% in the 12 months through August, rising by the same margin for a third straight month. September’s data will be published later this month.

The Fed last month upgraded its core PCE inflation projection for this year to 3.7% from 3.0% in June.

Despite strong wage gains, high inflation is cutting into consumers’ purchasing power.

That, together with motor vehicle shortages, led economists to cut their gross domestic product estimates for the third quarter to as low as a 1.3% annualized rate from as high as a 7% pace. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday slashed its 2021 U.S. growth forecast by a full percentage point, to 6.0% from 7.0% in July.

(Reporting by Lucia MutikaniEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Exclusive-Cash airlifts planned to bypass Taliban and help Afghans – sources

By Robin Emmott, John O’Donnell and Jonathan Landay

BRUSSELS/FRANKFURT/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As desperate Afghans resort to selling their belongings to buy food, international officials are preparing to fly in cash for the needy while avoiding financing the Taliban government, according to people familiar with the confidential plans.

Planning for the cash airlifts is going ahead against the background of a rapidly collapsing economy where money is short, although diplomats are still debating whether Western powers can demand that the Taliban make concessions in return, according to internal policy documents seen by Reuters.

The emergency funding, aimed at averting a humanitarian crisis in the face of drought and political upheaval, could see U.S. dollar bills flown into Kabul for distribution via banks in payments of less than $200 directly to the poor – with the Taliban’s blessing but without their involvement.

As well as flying in cash to stem the immediate crisis, donor countries want to set up a “humanitarian-plus” trust fund that would pay salaries and keep schools and hospitals open, two senior officials said.

Many Afghans have started selling their possessions to pay for ever scarcer food. The departure of U.S.-led forces and many international donors robbed the country of grants that financed 75% of public spending, according to the World Bank.

The West’s unorthodox strategy reflects the dilemma it faces. Still eager to help Afghanistan after two decades of war, and to prevent mass migration, it is also loathe to give money to the Taliban, who seized power in August and have yet to show significant change from the harsh way they ruled the country between 1996-2001.

CASH DROPS

The United Nations has warned that 14 million Afghans face hunger. Mary-Ellen McGroarty, U.N. World Food Program Afghanistan director, said the economy could collapse in the face of the cash crisis.

“Many parents are foregoing food so that their children can eat,” she has said.

In recent days, Western diplomats and officials have stepped up efforts to establish a cash lifeline.

The United Nations World Food Program has distributed about 10 million Afghanis ($110,000) in cash via a local bank and intends to disburse more soon, said one person with knowledge of the situation.

The cash runs are a trial for larger air deliveries of dollars from Pakistan, the person said.

A senior diplomat said two approaches are under consideration that would inject cash into the Afghan economy. Both are in the planning stages.

Under the first plan, the World Food Program would fly in cash and distribute it directly to people to buy food, expanding on something the agency already has been doing on a smaller scale.

The second approach would see cash flown in to be held by banks on behalf of the United Nations. That would be used to pay salaries to the staff of U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations, the diplomat said.

A third person said U.N. officials had talked with Afghan banks about opening up cash distribution channels.

“If the country collapses, we will all pay the consequences,” said a senior European Union official. “No one wants to rush into a recognition of the Taliban, but we need to deal with them. The question is not if … but how.”

A spokesperson for the World Food Program said it had helped almost 4 million people in September, nearly triple the August number, chiefly with food, and some cash assistance had been given out in Kabul. The spokesperson said the cash shortage was also affecting the millers and truckers it worked with.

NINE-BILLION-DOLLAR LEVERAGE

Separately, the European Union, Britain and the United States have discussed setting up an international trust fund to bypass the Afghan government and help finance local services, according to two officials with knowledge of the matter.

The Taliban did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the cash airlift plans.

A U.S. Treasury spokesperson said it would allow humanitarian assistance through independent international and non-governmental organizations while “denying assets” to the Taliban and sanctioning its leaders.

The Kabul government has little to fall back on. The central bank, with assets of $9 billion frozen offshore, has burnt through much of its reserves at home.

Shah Mehrabi, an official who helped oversee the bank before the Taliban took over and is still in his post, recently appealed for a release of the overseas reserves.

“If reserves remain frozen, Afghan importers will not be able to pay for their shipments, banks will start to collapse, food will be become scarce,” he said.

But there is also a debate about whether strings should be attached to cash releases.

In a paper written last month and seen by Reuters, French and German officials outline their aim of using money as a “lever” to pressure the Taliban.

“Countries could condition recognition of the political … legitimacy of the Taliban to the commitments they would be ready to take,” officials said in the two-page report.

“Economic and trade levers are among the strongest we have,” the note said, raising the prospect of releasing the Afghan reserves held abroad.

In a separate diplomatic note, French and German officials outline five demands that could be made of the Taliban.

Those include allowing Afghans who want to leave the country to do so, “breaking ties with … terrorist organizations,” allowing access to humanitarian aid, respect for human rights and establishing an “inclusive government.”

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Michelle Nichols and Rupam Jain; Writing by John O’Donnell; Editing by Giles Elgood)

U.S. grants licenses for more aid flow to Afghanistan despite sanctions

By Daphne Psaledakis

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States on Friday further paved the way for aid to flow to Afghanistan despite U.S. sanctions on the Taliban, who seized control of the country last month, issuing general licenses amid concern that Washington’s punitive measures could compound an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

The U.S. Treasury Department said it issued two general licenses, one allowing the U.S. government, NGOs and certain international organizations, including the United Nations, to engage in transactions with the Taliban or Haqqani Network – both under sanctions – that are necessary to provide humanitarian assistance.

The second license authorizes certain transactions related to the export and re-export of food, medicine and medical devices.

“Treasury is committed to facilitating the flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and other activities that support their basic human needs,” Andrea Gacki, director of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in the statement.

She added that Washington will continue to work with financial institutions, NGOs and international organizations to ease the flow of agricultural goods, medicine and other resources while upholding sanctions on the Taliban, Haqqani Network and others.

The United Nations said that at the start of the year more than 18 million people – about half of Afghanistan’s population – require aid amid the second drought in four years.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that Afghanistan is on “the verge of a dramatic humanitarian disaster” and has decided to engage the Taliban in order to help the country’s people.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is committed to allowing humanitarian work in Afghanistan to continue despite Washington listing the Taliban as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group.

The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the Islamist militant group and bar Americans from dealing with them, including the contribution of funds, goods or services.

Reuters reported last month that Washington issued a license authorizing the U.S. government and its partners to continue to facilitate humanitarian aid in Afghanistan.

Friday’s move expands on that specific license, allowing international organizations and NGOs to pay taxes, fees, import duties or permits, licenses or other necessary transactions for assistance to reach the people of Afghanistan.

A Taliban offensive as foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan after a 20-year war culminated in the capture of the capital Kabul on Aug. 15, two decades after they were driven from power by a U.S.-led campaign in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

Taliban fire in air to scatter hundreds of protesters in Kabul

(Reuters) – Taliban gunmen fired in the air on Tuesday to scatter protesters in the Afghan capital Kabul, witnesses said, as video showed scores scurrying to escape volleys of gunfire.

Hundreds of men and women shouting slogans such as “Long live the resistance” and “Death to Pakistan” marched in the streets to protest against the Taliban takeover. Neighboring Pakistan has deep ties with the Taliban and has been accused of assisting the Islamist group’s return to power – charges it denies.

“The Islamic government is shooting at our poor people,” one panic-stricken woman on the street says over sounds of gunfire in a video clip shown on Iranian television news. There were no immediate reports of injuries, however.

The Taliban’s rapid advance across Afghanistan as U.S. forces pulled out last month triggered a scramble to leave by people fearing reprisals.

U.S.-led foreign forces evacuated about 124,000 foreigners and at-risk Afghans, but tens of thousands were left behind.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was in contact with about 100 Americans who were still in Afghanistan.

About 1,000 people, including Americans, have been stuck in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif for days awaiting clearance for charter flights to leave, an organizer told Reuters, blaming the delay on the U.S. State Department.

Blinken, holding talks in Qatar, a key interlocutor with the Taliban, said the problem was one of documents.

“My understanding is that the Taliban have not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said those without valid documents, at this point, can’t leave,” he told reporters.

“Because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go … We are not aware of anyone being held on an aircraft, or any hostage-like situation.”

AIRPORT RESTART

At the same news conference, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said no deal had yet been reached with the Taliban on how Qatar and its partner Turkey could get Kabul airport running again.

“We hope in the next few days we can get to a level where the airport is up and running for passengers and for humanitarian aid as well,” he said.

Turkey says it wants to provide security inside the airport to protect any Turkish staff and safeguard operations, but that the Taliban have insisted no foreign forces can be present.

On Monday, the Islamist militants claimed victory in the Panjshir valley, the last province holding out against it, and promised to name a government soon.

Pictures on social media showed Taliban members standing in front of the Panjshir governor’s compound after days of fighting with the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRFA), commanded by Panjshiri leader Ahmad Massoud.

Massoud denied that his force, consisting of remnants of the Afghan army as well as local militia fighters, was beaten.

“We are in Panjshir and our resistance will continue,” he tweeted. He said he was safe but did not say where.

The Taliban have repeatedly sought to reassure Afghans and foreign countries that they will not return to the brutality of their last reign two decades ago, marked by violent public punishments and the barring of women and girls from public life.

But more than three weeks after seizing Kabul, they have yet to set out their plans.

Asked whether Washington would recognize the Taliban, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday: “That’s a long way off.”

STUDENTS SEGREGATED

Teachers and students at universities in Afghanistan’s largest cities – Kabul, Kandahar and Herat – told Reuters that female students were being segregated in class with curtains, taught separately or limited to some campus areas.

“Putting up curtains is not acceptable,” Anjila, a 21-year-old female student at Kabul University, said by telephone, adding that women had sat apart from males in classrooms before the Taliban took over, but without barriers.

“I really felt terrible when I entered the class … We are gradually going back to 20 years ago.”

The conflict in Afghanistan, coupled with drought and coronavirus, has left 18 million people – almost half the population – in need of humanitarian aid, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said.

It said tens of thousands of families had headed for relief camps in urban areas, but found they had neither food nor income.

“Basic services in Afghanistan are collapsing and food and other lifesaving aid is about to run out,” Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a news conference in Geneva, urging more aid ahead of an international donor conference on Sept. 13.

The World Health Organization is liaising with Qatar on deliveries of urgently needed medical supplies, WHO regional emergency director Rick Brennan said.

Drought and war have forced about 5.5 million Afghans to flee their homes, including more than 550,000 newly displaced in 2021, the International Organization for Migration says.

Western powers say they are prepared to send humanitarian aid, but that broader economic engagement depends on the shape and actions of the Taliban government.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Clarence Fernandez, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Hundreds of displaced families seek food and shelter in Kabul

(Reuters) – Hundreds of Afghan families who have been camping in searing heat at a Kabul park after the Taliban overran their provinces begged for food and shelter on Thursday, the most visible face of a humanitarian crisis unfolding in the war-torn country.

The Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan this month, culminating in the capture of Kabul on Aug. 15, has thrown the country into turmoil.

While thousands of people have crowded the airport to try to flee, many others, like the families in the park, are stuck in limbo, unsure whether it is safer to try to go home or stay where they are.

“I’m in a bad situation,” said Zahida Bibi, a housewife, sitting under the blazing sun with her large family. “My head hurts. I feel very bad, there is nothing in my stomach.”

Ahmed Waseem, displaced from northern Afghanistan said those in the park were hoping the central government would pay attention. “We are in an open field and in the heat,” he said.

Afghanistan’s western-backed president and many other officials fled after government forces melted away in the face of the Taliban advance. The group has placed its members in ministries and ordered some officials back to work, but services are yet to resume, with banks still closed.

Phalwan Sameer, also from northern Afghanistan, said his family came to Kabul after the situation rapidly deteriorated in his home town.

“There (was) a lot of fighting and bombing as well. That’s why we came here. The houses were burned and we became homeless,” he said.

The World Health Organization said on Tuesday it has only enough medical supplies in Afghanistan to last a week after deliveries were blocked by restrictions at Kabul airport and the U.N. World Food Program said the country urgently needed $200 million in food aid.

The United Nations says more than 18 million people – over half of Afghanistan’s population – require aid and half of all Afghan children under the age of five already suffer from acute malnutrition amid the second drought in four years.

The Taliban have assured the U.N. that it can pursue humanitarian work as foreign governments weigh the issue of whether and how to support the population under hardline Islamist rule.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; writing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Charity say migrants on Polish-Belarus border seriously ill

WARSAW (Reuters) – A Polish refugee charity said on Wednesday 25 migrants camped on the Poland-Belarus border were unwell, including a mother of five who would soon die without help from the authorities.

The Ocalenie Foundation say the Polish Border Guard’s refusal to let anyone from the Polish side deliver food or medicine to the 32-strong group, who have been on the Belarus side of the border for around two weeks, is putting lives at risk. It said 12 were seriously ill.

Polish opposition lawmaker Franciszek Sterczewski was filmed trying to run past Border Guard officers with a bag he said contained food and medicine before being bundled to the ground.

The group of migrants has become embroiled in a broader dispute between the European Union and Belarus.

The European Union accuses Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the arrival of thousands of people at the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland in retaliation for sanctions imposed on the former Soviet republic.

The Belarusian foreign ministry on Tuesday accused Poland of provoking migrant flows from Afghanistan as part of the U.S. coalition, according to the state-run Belta news agency. It blamed the breakdown in border cooperation on the EU.

Poland, which said this week it would build a fence on the border and double the number of troops there to halt the flow, says responsibility for the migrants lies with Belarus.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Wednesday that a convoy of humanitarian aid offered by Poland had been refused by Minsk. His deputy foreign minister said Belarusian authorities were providing the migrants with water, food and cigarettes.

Belarus authorities were not immediately available to comment.

The Ocalenie Foundation, which has been communicating with the migrants using a translator with a megaphone from a distance, said they were desperate.

“They don’t have drinking water. They have had nothing to eat since yesterday,” it said.

“Fifty-two-year-old Mrs. Gul will soon die in front of her five children. Rescue is needed NOW,” it said on Twitter.

It said the woman was from Afghanistan and she had two sons and three daughters with her, the youngest of whom was aged 15. It declined to provide further details, but said the other migrants were also from Afghanistan.

Poland’s Border Guard said on Friday it had asked Belarusian authorities three times to intervene with the group and that Belarus said it was doing so.

“We don’t know what the state of these people’s health is,” Border Guard spokeswoman Anna Michalska said. Reuters was unable to independently verify the condition of the migrants’ health.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish and Pawel Florkiewicz; Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Matthias Williams; Editing by Alison Williams)

Syrian army and pro-Iranian militias attack rebel enclave in southern city

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian army units aided by pro-Iranian militias have staged a major assault on an opposition enclave in the southern border city of Deraa in a bid to retake the last opposition stronghold in southern Syria, residents, army and opposition sources said.

Troops amassed around the sprawling government-held city sought to advance into the area known as Deraa al Balaad, which has particular significance in the Syrian conflict as it was center of the first peaceful protests against Assad family rule in 2011 which were met by deadly force before spreading across the country.

Opposition fighters said they had repulsed the attack from the western side of the enclave, which has been under a two-month siege during which the army has prevented food, medical and fuel supplies coming in but opened a corridor for civilians to leave, residents and local figures said.

Pro-Iranian army units led by the elite Fourth Division who have also encircled the enclave poured in new fighters and set up new checkpoints on the main Damascus highway leading to the Jordanian border crossing, a senior army source said.

Another army source said fighting was continuing, but did not elaborate. State media have in recent days said the army was preparing to end a “state of lawlessness and chaos” and reimpose army control.

There was no indication of casualties in the latest incident.

The Syrian army, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, in 2018 retook control of the province of which Deraa is the capital and which borders Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights.

ROAD MAP

Local negotiators from both sides say Moscow, which plays a leading role in maintaining security in the region, had so far held back the army from a military offensive, which they say Iranian-backed army units who have a major presence in Deraa have been pushing for.

Russian generals who on Aug. 14 presented local leaders and the army with a road map that averts a military showdown are trying to win over the opposition, some of whom fear the plan reneges on a deal brokered by Russia three years ago.

The deal at the time forced thousands of mainstream Western- backed rebels to hand over heavy weapons in 2018 but kept the army from entering Deraa al Balaad.

Moscow’s plan seen by Reuters offers ex-rebels a pardon but allows the army to gradually take over the enclave, while offering safe passage to former rebels who oppose the deal to leave for opposition areas in northwest Syria.

Residents say Russian military police have stepped up their presence in the city and its outskirts, where they often act as mediators between locals in disputes with the army and security forces.

The enclave until recently had a population of some 50,000 but most had fled in the last two weeks, so the area has become a virtual ghost town with several thousand rebels dug in.

The enclave and other towns in southern Syria have, since the state regained control of the province, held sporadic protests against President Bashar al Assad’s authoritarian rule that are rare in areas under state control.

“They want to stamp out the remaining voice of the revolution in southern Syria,” said Abu Jehad al Hourani, a local civilian leader in the enclave.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by David Holmes)

U.S. aid chief says emergency food in Ethiopia’s Tigray to run out this week

By Maggie Fick

NAIROBI (Reuters) -For the first time in nine months of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, aid workers will run out of food this week to deliver to millions of people who are going hungry, the head of the U.S. government’s humanitarian agency said, blaming the government for restricting access.

“USAID and its partners as well as other humanitarian organizations have depleted their stores of food items warehoused in Tigray,” Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said in a statement late on Thursday.

“People in Tigray are starving with up to 900,000 in famine conditions and more than five million in desperate need of humanitarian assistance,” Power said. “This shortage is not because food is unavailable, but because the Ethiopian Government is obstructing humanitarian aid and personnel, including land convoys and air access.”

War broke out in November between Ethiopian troops and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the region. The conflict has killed thousands and sparked a humanitarian crisis in one of the world’s poorest regions.

Billene Seyoum, spokesperson for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, did not respond to a request for comment. At a news conference on Friday, she did not refer to Power’s statement but dismissed allegations that the Ethiopian government is “purposely blocking humanitarian assistance”, saying the government is concerned about security.

“It is important to really address this continuing rhetoric because that is not the case,” Billene said. “Security is first and foremost a priority that cannot be compromised, it is a volatile area so in that regards there is going to be continuous checks and processes.”

On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate ceasefire and unrestricted aid access in Tigray. The U.N. warned last month that more than 100,000 children in Tigray could die of hunger.

Power’s statement said that 100 trucks carrying food and life-saving supplies need to be arriving each day in Tigray to meet the humanitarian needs there. As of a few days ago, only about 320 trucks had arrived, less than 7% of what is required, it said.

The Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire in June after Tigrayan forces re-captured the regional capital Mekelle and retook most of the region. The Tigrayan forces dismissed this as a “joke” and issued preconditions for truce talks.

(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Additional reporting by Ayenat Mersie and Giulia Paravicini; Editing by John Stonestreet and Frances Kerry)

Haitians sheltering in tents grow impatient for aid after devastating quake

By Laura Gottesdiener

LES CAYES, Haiti (Reuters) – Haitians left homeless by a devastating earthquake that killed about 2,000 people voiced anger over a lack of government aid as they spent a fourth night in the open on Wednesday, many without clean water and food.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who flew to visit the worst-affected town of Les Cayes in southwest Haiti soon after Saturday’s quake of magnitude 7.2, had praised the dignity shown by survivors and promised a rapid escalation of aid.

But by late Tuesday, as storm clouds threatened a second night of heavy rain, residents of a mushrooming tent city in Les Cayes said help was scant.

“No one from the government has come here. Nothing has been done,” said Roosevelt Milford, a pastor who had visited radio and television stations in the area, pleading for airtime.

“We need help,” Milford said in a simple message delivered over the airwaves on behalf of the hundreds camping out in soggy fields since the quake destroyed their homes.

Nearby, displaced residents used machetes to shave down the edges of wooden poles to be staked into the ground to support makeshift tents.

Tropical Storm Grace, which ploughed across southern Haiti the previous night, had swept away many shelters and inundated the field, adding to the misery.

“We have the will to do everything but we don’t have the money or resources,” Milford said. “And we need to prepare for the rain coming tonight.”

He and others complained that they lacked even the most basic types of aid, such as food, clean drinking water, and shelter from the rain.

In a country with high levels of violent crime, residents set up their own security teams to keep watch at night, paying particular attention to the safety of women and girls, he added.

Security concerns about the gang-controlled areas on the route from the capital Port-au-Prince, as well as quake damage to some roads, have made access to some of the worst-affected zones difficult for aid and rescue teams.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Tuesday that successful negotiations with armed groups had permitted a humanitarian convoy to reach Les Cayes. Media said a truce had been agreed with the gangs.

Jerry Chandler, the head of Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency, which handles emergency response, said the government was sending aid to affected areas by land. In the first days after the quake, many medics and aid workers had rushed in by plane.

However, flash flooding and landslides in the wake of Tropical Storm Grace, which swept past Jamaica by Tuesday afternoon, worsened the difficulties of reaching remote communities.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, is still recovering from a quake 11 years ago that killed more than 200,000. The latest calamity comes just over a month after the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moise plunged the country into political turmoil.

HOSPITALS DAMAGED

Authorities said on Tuesday that the earthquake had killed at least 1,941 people, but with rescuers still pulling bodies from the rubble the tally looks set to rise.

In a rare piece of good news, authorities said 16 people were pulled from the wreckage on Tuesday, though as time passes, hopes for survivors dim.

Quake damage has hampered the work of several major hospitals. Doctors in makeshift tents have battled to save the injured, from young children to the elderly.

The United Nations said it had allocated $8 million in emergency relief funds.

Latin American countries such as Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela sent food, medicine and supplies, while the United States also dispatched supplies and search and rescue teams.

Dozens in the Les Cayes tent city hailed from the nearby poor neighborhood of Impasse Filadelfia, where crumbling cement homes, contorted tin roofs and soaked mattresses lined narrow dirt roads.

Water surged into the modest homes after a fast-moving river that edges the neighborhood burst its banks during the quake.

There, too, more than a dozen residents told Reuters that they had not seen any government representatives since the earthquake.

“We are crying out for help,” said one of them, Claudel Ledan. “All our houses collapsed and we need help from the government urgently.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in Les Cayes; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Clarence Fernandez)