North Korean food supply still precarious as donors stay away, U.N. says

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles as children eat during his visit to the Pyongyang Orphanage on International Children's Day in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang

GENEVA (Reuters) – The supply of food remains precarious in North Korea, where one in five children is stunted by malnutrition, the United Nation’s food agency said on Tuesday.

More than 10 million North Koreans, nearly 40 percent of the population, are undernourished and need humanitarian aid, the World Food Programme (WFP) said.

WFP, which provides fortified cereals and enriched biscuits to 650,000 women and children each month, may have to cut its nutrition and health programs again because it lacks funding, WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said.

WFP and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are among only a few aid agencies with access to North Korea, which suffered a famine in the mid-1990s that killed up to 3 million people.

“Despite some improvements this year, humanitarian needs across DPRK remain high with chronic food insecurity and malnutrition widespread,” Verhoosel told a Geneva news briefing.

He was referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea.

Some donors and companies, including shipping companies, have been reluctant to fund or to get involved in aid programs for North Korea, although humanitarian work is excluded from sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council on North Korea for its nuclear and missile program, he said.

“We cannot wait for political or diplomatic progress to support a civilian population and to basically work on a humanitarian agenda,” he said.

The United States, the WFP’s largest donor overall, is not among current donors to its program in North Korea, which include France, Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, and the Russian Federation, he said.

The WFP, which appealed this year for $52 million for North Korea, needs $15.2 million to fund its programs over the next five months and avoid further cuts to its food assistance, he said.

Critical funding shortfalls meant this year the agency was forced to leave 190,000 children in kindergartens without nutritional support, he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

Trump says next meeting with North Korea’s Kim being set up

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un meet at the start of their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday plans were being made for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and he thinks “incredible” progress has been made in U.S. talks with the long-isolated country.

“Well it is happening and we’re setting that up right now,” Trump told reporters at the White House after announcing the resignation of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

He said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had very good talks with Kim over the weekend and that three or four locations were being considered for the two leaders’ next summit. “Timing won’t be too far away,” he said.

Trump and Kim held a historic first summit in Singapore on June 12 at which Kim pledged to work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, his actions have fallen short of Washington’s demands for a complete inventory of its weapons and facilities and irreversible steps to give up its arsenal.

Still, Trump was upbeat on progress made so far.

“You got no rockets flying, you have no missiles flying, you have no nuclear testing,” Trump said in the Oval Office. “We’ve made incredible progress – beyond incredible.

“But I have agreed to meet,” he said. “We have a very good relationship with Chairman Kim. I like him, he likes me, the relationship is good.”

Pompeo said on Monday the two sides were “pretty close” to agreeing on details for a second summit.

Pompeo told reporters Kim had said he was ready to allow international inspectors into North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear testing site and the Sohae missile engine test facility as soon as the United States and North Korea agreed on logistics.

However, experts questioned what Pompeo had achieved on Sunday on his fourth visit to Pyongyang this year. They said the North Korean leader appeared simply to be repackaging and dragging out past pledges.

Trump noted that the United States has not lifted the “very big sanctions” it has imposed on Pyongyang.

“I’d love to remove them, but we have to get something for doing it,” Trump said.

North Korea is very interested in reaching some sort of agreement on denuclearization so that it can grow economically with the benefit of the foreign investment closed to it now, Trump said.

The U.N. World Food Program said on Tuesday that the supply of food remains precarious in North Korea, where one in five children is stunted by malnutrition. More than 10 million North Koreans, nearly 40 percent of the population, are undernourished and need humanitarian aid, it said.

“I will tell you they’re calling, wanting to go there and wanting to invest,” Trump said. “At some point, when Chairman Kim makes that decision, I think he’s going to unleash something that’s going to be spectacular, really spectacular.

“And I think he knows it and I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re having very successful conversations.”

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Lisa Lambert, Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis)

Yemen war a ‘living hell’ for children: UNICEF

A woman carries a child at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

SANAA (Reuters) – In the malnutrition ward of a hospital in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, doctors weigh toddlers with protruding rib cages and skeletal limbs.

Twenty children, most under the age of two, being treated at the ward in Sab’een Hospital are among hundreds of thousands of children suffering from severe malnutrition in the impoverished country that has been ravaged by a more than three years of war.

“The conflict has made Yemen a living hell for its children,” Meritxell Relano, UNICEF Representative in Yemen, told Reuters.

A child looks on as a relative wraps it with a blanket at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

A child looks on as a relative wraps it with a blanket at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

She said more than 11 million children, or about 80 percent of the country’s population under the age of 18, were facing the threat of food shortages, disease, displacement and acute lack of access to basic social services.

“An estimated 1.8 million children are malnourished in the country. Nearly 400,000 of them are severely acute malnourished and they are fighting for their lives every day.”

A coalition of Sunni Muslim Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 against the Iranian-aligned Houthis after they drove the internationally recognized government out of the capital Sanaa.

The war has unleashed the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis in the nation of 28 million, where 8.4 million people are believed to be on the verge of starvation and 22 million people are dependent on aid.

The coalition has imposed stringent measures on imports into Yemen to prevent the Houthis from smuggling weapons but the checks have slowed the flow of commercial goods and vital aid into the country.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE say they are providing funds and supplies to support aid efforts in Yemen. The Houthis blame the coalition for choking off imports into the country.

In Sab’een hospital a toddler in diapers lay wrapped in blankets with a tube inserted in the child’s nose. Another child cried while being lowered naked unto a scale to be weighed.

A boy lies in bed at Hemodialysis Center in Al-Thawra hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 13 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A boy lies in bed at Hemodialysis Center in Al-Thawra hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 13 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

The families of the children declined to speak to the media.

“The situation of the families without jobs, without income and in the middle of the war, is catastrophic,” Relano said.

She said UNICEF had provided more than 244,000 severely malnourished children under the age of five with therapeutic treatment since the beginning of 2018, in addition to micronutrient treatment to over 317,000 children under five.

“The human cost and the humanitarian impact of this conflict is unjustifiable,” U.N. humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande said in a statement on Thursday.

“Parties to the conflict are obliged to do absolutely everything possible to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and ensure people have access to the aid they are entitled to and need to survive.”‘

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Alison Williams)

‘Clear evidence of humanitarian need’ in North Korea: U.N. aid chief

North Korea's Minister of Health Jang Jun Sang meets with the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcork in Pyongyang, North Korea in this photo released July 11, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. KCNA via REUTERS 

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – There is “very clear evidence of humanitarian need” in North Korea, the top U.N. aid official has said during the first visit of its kind to the isolated country since 2011.

U.N. Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock arrived in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on Monday.

He met Kim Yong Nam, the nominal head of state and president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, on Wednesday, the North’s state media said.

Lowcock posted a video online outlining his observations after traveling to several areas in the southwest of the country.

“One of the things we’ve seen is very clear evidence of humanitarian need here,” he said in the video, posted to his official Twitter account and the U.N. website.

“More than half the children in rural areas, including the places we’ve been, have no clean water, contaminated water sources.”

Although humanitarian supplies or operations are exempt under U.N. Security Council resolutions, U.N. officials have warned that international sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs are exacerbating humanitarian problems by slowing aid deliveries.

About 20 percent of children in North Korea suffer from malnutrition, highlighting the need for more funding for humanitarian aid, Lowcock said.

Access for humanitarian workers was improving, he said without elaborating, but he noted that funding was falling short.

The United Nations says it had to stop nutrition support for kindergartens in North Korea in November because of a lack of funds, and its “2018 Needs and Priorities Plan” for North Korea is 90 percent underfunded.

While visiting a hospital that is not supported by the United Nations, Lowcock said there were 140 tuberculosis patients but only enough drugs to treat 40 of them.

More than 10 million people, some 40 percent of the population of North Korea, need humanitarian assistance, the United Nations said in a statement.

Lowcock was also due to meet humanitarian agency representatives and people receiving assistance to get a better understanding of the humanitarian situation, the United Nations said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Hunger brings death to Congolese Kasai after guns fall silent

An internally displaced woman sits with her severely acute malnourished children as they wait to receive medical attention at the Tshiamala general referral hospital of Mwene Ditu in Kasai Oriental Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

By media coulibaly

MWENE DITU, Democratic Republic of Congo, March 21 (Reuters) – The guns have fallen silent in the Congolese town of Mwene Ditu, but each day starving children arrive at the small hospital there battling for their lives.

Justine Musau, pregnant with her second child, fled into the forest in the central Kasai region last year after militiamen arrived in her nearby village and started decapitating residents they accused of collaborating with government forces.

“We didn’t know who had gone where,” she said, holding her four-year-old daughter close to her chest. Nourished only by the occasional serving of cassava, her two children had fallen ill from the lack of nutrients, she said.

“We went to sleep famished for three or four days at a time. We didn’t have pots or pans to prepare (food) so we had practically nothing to eat.”

Fighting between the army and the Kamuina Nsapu militia went on for about a year in the generally peaceful region’s worst outbreak of violence in decades. As many as 5,000 people were killed and an estimated 1.5 million forced from their homes.

Hostilities broke out in August 2016 when Congolese forces killed local chief Jean-Pierre Mpandi, who had demanded their withdrawal from Kasai.

Both sides committed atrocities, according to witness testimonies gathered by Reuters and the United Nations.

Security forces gunned down women and children in door-to-door raids and militiamen burned down houses and cut off alleged government sympathizers’ heads, feeding the blood to their young fighters as part of gruesome initiation rituals.

The deployment of more government troops into Kasai has largely put a stop to the violence, and hundreds of thousands of civilians are now returning home.

But as they do, hunger and disease are eclipsing guns and machetes as the region’s most prolific killers.

About 400,000 children in Kasai suffer from severe acute malnutrition, roughly the same number as in civil war-ravaged Yemen, according to the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF).

Only 13 percent receive medical attention “because there is not enough financing or attention,” said Christophe Boulierac, a UNICEF spokesman.

While a cholera epidemic that has already killed more than 100 people also rages, the fields that grow the cassava and maize the population depends on to survive lie barren from months of neglect.

COMBUSTIBLE MIX

The crisis in Kasai is one of several gripping Congo, where President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down when his mandate expired in December 2016 inflamed a combustible mix of ethnic grievances and competition over land and mineral resources that has fuelled years of conflict.

In all, over 13 million Congolese need humanitarian aid, twice as many as last year, and 7.7 million face severe food insecurity, up 30 percent from a year ago, the U.N. said in a report this month.

Aid groups say they have only a fraction of the $1.7 billion they need this year, so many of those returning home hungry and destitute find they are left to fend for themselves.

“After a month in the forest, we heard people cry out, ‘Leave the bush, the Kamuina Nsapu have left,'” recalled Justine Mulanaga, who had come to the hospital with her two young grandchildren.

“We left the forest to return to the village but everything was destroyed,” she said. “We didn’t even find a glass or a plate.”

(Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by John Stonestreet)

Venezuela begins power rationing as drought causes severe outages

Lisney Albornoz (2nd R) and her family use a candle to illuminate the table while they dine, during a blackout in San Cristobal, Venezuela March 14, 2018. Picture taken March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

By Anggy Polanco and Isaac Urrutia

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela imposed electricity rationing this week in six western states, as the crisis-hit country’s creaky power grid suffered from a drought that has reduced water levels in key reservoirs needed to run hydroelectric power generators.

The four-hour formal outages began on Thursday. But many residents scoffed at the announcement, wryly noting that they have been suffering far more extended blackouts during the last week.

“We have spent 14 hours without electricity today. And yesterday electricity came and went: for six hours we had no power,” said Ligthia Marrero, 50, in the western state of San Cristobal, noting that her fridge had been damaged by the frequent interruptions.

Crumbling infrastructure and lack of investments have hit Venezuela’s power supply for years. Now, the situation has been exacerbated by dwindling rains.

In the worst-hit western cities, business has all but ground to a halt at a time when the OPEC nation of 30 million is already suffering hyperinflation and a profound recession. Many Venezuelans are unable to eat properly on salaries of just a couple of dollars per month at the black market rate, sparking malnutrition, emigration and frequent sights of Venezuelans digging through trash or begging in front of supermarkets.

Maybelin Mendoza, a cashier at a bakery in Tachira state, said business has been further hit because points of sale stop working during blackouts – just as Venezuelans are chronically short of cash due to hyperinflation.

In the most dramatic cases, the opposition governor of Tachira state said three people, including a four-month-old, died this week because they failed to receive assistance during a power outage.

“Because of electrical failures, the machines weren’t able to revive the people and they died,” said Laidy Gomez.

Reuters was unable to confirm the report.

Authorities have acknowledged that interruptions will continue for at least two weeks, but they have not said whether they will spread to other states.

A worker tries to start the generator of the Padre Justo hospital during a blackout in Rubio, Venezuela March 14, 2018. Picture taken March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

A worker tries to start the generator of the Padre Justo hospital during a blackout in Rubio, Venezuela March 14, 2018. Picture taken March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

“Of a possible 1,100 megawatts, we are only generating 150 right now,” Energy Minister Luis Motta told reporters referring to the Fabricio Ojeda dam, in the western Andean state of Merida.

Capital city Caracas and other major cities have not been hit by rationing yet. Two years ago, rationing there lasted five months when a drought hit the Guri dam, the country’s largest hydroelectric dam.

But because of the economic crisis, Venezuela has reduced electricity consumption to about 14,000 megawatts at peak hours, according to engineer and former electricity executive Miguel Lara. Two years ago, state-run Corpoelec put the figure at 16,000 megawatts.

(Writing by Andreina Aponte and Girish Gupta; Editing by Corina Pons, Alexandra Ulmer and David Gregorio)

Two million children in Congo at risk of starvation, U.N. warns

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 2 million children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are estimated to be at risk of dying from severe acute malnutrition if they do not get the aid they need, the United Nations warned on Friday.

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock will meet donors next week in the country where conditions in many areas are worsening, U.N. spokesman Jens Laerke told a Geneva briefing.

“We have a great responsibility in the DRC…now is the time to stay the course,” Laerke said.

The 2 million children at risk of starvation include some 300,000 children in the Kasai region, Bettina Luescher of the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Tom Miles)

Venezuela’s Maduro threatens to gatecrash regional summit

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s unpopular socialist president Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday his right-wing Latin American counterparts showed intolerance by trying to exclude him from an upcoming summit in Lima and he vowed to go anyway.

Peru’s center-right government this week said Maduro would not be welcome at the Summit of the Americas in April, reinforcing his growing diplomatic isolation during a crackdown on dissent and a brutal economic crisis in Venezuela.

“Do you fear me? You don’t want to see me in Lima? You’re going to see me. Because come rain or shine, by air, land, or sea, I will attend the Summit of the Americas,” Maduro said during a press conference with foreign journalists.

Maduro also said Argentina’s center-right president Mauricio Macri should call a meeting of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) group of Latin American nations with him.

“Call a meeting, dare, don’t be scared of me, President Macri,” said Maduro. “If you want to talk about Venezuela, let’s talk about Venezuela.”

Government critics say Maduro for years has refused to listen to advice that he should reform Venezuela’s crumbling economy that has spawned shortages, hyperinflation, malnutrition, and the return of once-controlled diseases. They also say he refuses to acknowledge the extent of Venezuela’s humanitarian suffering, so it is futile to meet with him.

He says right-wing regional governments are part of U.S.-led international conspiracy to topple him and take control of the OPEC member’s oil resources.

“They’re the most unpopular governments on the planet,” he said, naming Argentina, Colombia and Peru.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)

Mad Max violence stalks Venezuela’s lawless roads

A child looks at a basket filled with mandarins while workers load merchandise into Humberto Aguilar's truck at the wholesale market in Barquisimeto, Venezuela January 30,

By Andrew Cawthorne

LA GRITA, Venezuela (Reuters) – It’s midnight on one of the most dangerous roads in Latin America and Venezuelan trucker Humberto Aguilar hurtles through the darkness with 20 tons of vegetables freshly harvested from the Andes for sale in the capital Caracas.

When he set off at sunset from the town of La Grita in western Venezuela on his 900-km (560-mile) journey, Aguilar knew he was taking his life in his hands.

With hunger widespread amid a fifth year of painful economic implosion under President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has seen a frightening surge in attacks on increasingly lawless roads.

Just a few days earlier, Aguilar said he sat terrified when hundreds of looters swarmed a stationary convoy, overwhelming drivers by sheer numbers. They carted off milk, rice and sugar from other trucks but left his less-prized vegetables alone.

“Every time I say goodbye to my family, I entrust myself to God and the Virgin,” said the 36-year-old trucker.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

While truck heists have long been common in Latin America’s major economies from Mexico to Brazil, looting of cargoes on roads has soared in Venezuela in recent times and appears to be not just a result of common crime but directly linked to growing hunger and desperation among the population of 30 million.

Across Venezuela, there were some 162 lootings in January, including 42 robberies of trucks, according to the consultancy Oswaldo Ramirez Consultores (ORC), which tracks road safety for companies. That compared to eight lootings, including one truck robbery, in the same month of last year.

“The hunger and despair are far worse than people realize, what we are seeing on the roads is just another manifestation of that. We’ve also been seeing people stealing and butchering animals in fields, attacking shops and blocking roads to protest their lack of food. It’s become extremely serious,” said ORC director Oswaldo Ramirez.

Eight people have died in the lootings in January of this year, according to a Reuters tally.

The dystopian attacks in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates are pushing up transport and food costs in an already hyperinflationary environment, as well as stifling movement of goods in the crisis-hit OPEC nation.

They have complicated the perilous life of truckers who already face harassment from bribe-seeking soldiers, spiraling prices for parts and hours-long lines for fuel.

Government officials and representatives of the security forces did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Barred by law from carrying guns, the Andean truckers form convoys to protect themselves, text each other about trouble spots – and keep moving as fast as possible.

Aguilar said that on one trip a man appeared on his truck’s sideboard and put a pistol to his head – but his co-driver swerved hard to shake the assailant off.

On this journey, however, he was lucky. Just before reaching Caracas, assailants hurled a stone at his windscreen but it bounced off.

Even once Andean truckers reach cities, there is no respite.

Armed gangs often charge them for safe passage and permission to set up markets.

“The government gives us no security. It’s madness. People have got used to the easy life of robbing,” said Javier Escalante, who owns two trucks that take vegetables from La Grita to the town of Guatire outside Caracas every week.

“But if we stop, how do we earn a living for our families? How do Venezuelans eat? And how do the peasant farmers sell their produce? We have no choice but to keep going.”

GUNMEN ON BIKES

The looters use a variety of techniques, depending on the terrain and the target, according to truckers, inhabitants of towns on highways, and videos of incidents.

Sometimes gunmen on motorbikes surround a truck, slowing it down before pouncing like lions stalking prey. In other instances, attackers wait for a vehicle to slow down – at a pothole for example – before jumping on, cutting through the tarpaulin and hurling goods onto the ground for waiting companions.

In one video apparently showing a looting and uploaded to social media, people are seen gleefully dragging live chickens from a stranded truck.

The looters use tree trunks and rocks to stop vehicles, and are particularly fond of “miguelitos” – pieces of metal with long spikes – to burst tires and halt vehicles.

A ring-road round the central town of Barquisimeto, with shanty-towns next to it, is notorious among truckers, who nickname it “The Guillotine” due to the regular attacks.

In some cases, crowds simply swarm at trucks when they stop for a break or repairs. Soldiers or policemen seldom help, according to interviews with two dozen drivers.

Yone Escalante, 43, who also takes vegetables from the Andes on a 2,800-km (1,700-mile) round-trip to eastern Venezuela, shudders when he recalls how a vehicle of his was ransacked in the remote plains of Guarico state last year.

The trouble began when one of his two trucks broke down and about 60 people appeared from the shadows and surrounded it.

Escalante, about half an hour behind in his truck, rushed to help. By the time he arrived, the crowd had swelled to 300 and Escalante – a well-spoken businessman who owns trucks and sells produce – said he jumped on the vehicle to reason with them.

“Suddenly two military men arrived on the scene, and I thought ‘Thank God, help has arrived’,” Escalante recounted during a break between trips in La Grita.

But as the crowd chanted menacingly “Food for the people!”, the soldiers muttered something about the goods being insured – which they were not – and drove off, he said.

“That was the trigger. They came at us like ants and stripped us of everything: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots. It took me all day to load that truck, and 30 minutes for them to empty it. I could cry with rage.”

MAD MAX OR ROBIN HOOD?

Though events on Venezuela’s roads may seem like something out of the Mad Max movie, truckers say they are often more akin to Robin Hood as assailants are careful not to harm the drivers or their vehicles provided they do not resist.

“The best protection is to be submissive, hand things over,” said Roberto Maldonado, who handles paperwork for truckers in La Grita. “When people are hungry, they are dangerous.”

However, all the truckers interviewed by Reuters said they knew of someone murdered on the roads – mainly during targeted robberies rather than spontaneous lootings.

With new tires now going for about 70 million bolivars – about $300 on the black market or more than two decades of work at the official minimum wage – looters often swipe them along with food.

The journey from the Andes to Caracas passes about 25 checkpoints, where the truckers have to alight and seek a stamp from National Guard soldiers.

At some, a bribe is required, with a bag of potatoes now more effective than increasingly worthless cash.

Yone Escalante said that on one occasion when he was looted after a tire burst, policemen joined in the fray, taking bananas and cheese with the crowd.

In the latest attack, just days ago, he was traveling slowly over potholes in a convoy with four other trucks after dark, when assailants jumped on and started grabbing produce.

“Even though there were holes in the road, we sped up and swerved to shake them off,” he said. “It’s either us or them.”

(See http://reut.rs/2GVaX0s for a related photo essay and http://tmsnrt.rs/2sgqfJP for a map of one trucking route)

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in La Grita; Editing by Girish Gupta, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

Food security in Middle East, North Africa deteriorating, says U.N. agency

A Syrian woman and her children wait for food aid in front of an humanitarian aid distrubition center in Syrian border town of Jarablus, Syria, December 13, 2017.

CAIRO (Reuters) – Food security in the Middle East and North Africa is quickly deteriorating because of conflict in several countries in the region, the United Nations said on Thursday.

In those hardest hit by crises — Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Sudan — an average of more than a quarter of the population was undernourished, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization said in its annual report on food security.

A quarter of Yemen’s people are on the brink of famine, several years into a proxy war between the Iran-aligned Houthis and the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi that has caused one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in recent times.

The report focused on changes to food security and nutrition across the region since 2000.

It said that undernourishment in countries not directly affected by conflict, such as most Gulf Arab states and most North African countries including Egypt, had slowly improved in the last decade. But it had worsened in conflict-hit countries.

“The costs of conflict can be seen in the measurements of food insecurity and malnutrition,” the FAO’s assistant director-general Abdessalam Ould Ahmed said.

“Decisive steps towards peace and stability (need to be) taken.”

Several countries in the region erupted into conflict following uprisings in 2011 that overthrew leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Syria’s civil war, which also began with popular demonstrations, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and made more than 11 million homeless.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Angus MacSwan)