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)

North Korean women suffer discrimination, rape, malnutrition: U.N.

Women wearing traditional clothes walk past North Korean soldiers after an opening ceremony for a newly constructed residential complex in Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea April 13, 2017.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korean women are deprived of education and job opportunities and are often subjected to violence at home and sexual assault in the workplace, a U.N. human rights panel said on Monday.

After a regular review of Pyongyang’s record, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also voiced concern at rape or mistreatment of women in detention especially those repatriated after fleeing abroad.

North Korean women are “under-represented or disadvantaged” in tertiary education, the judiciary, security and police forces and leadership and managerial positions “in all non-traditional areas of work”, the panel of independent experts said.

“The main issue is first of all the lack of information. We have no access to a large part of laws, elements and information on national machinery,” Nicole Ameline, panel member, told Reuters. “We have asked a lot of questions.”

North Korea told the panel on Nov. 8 that it was working to uphold women’s rights and gender equality but that sanctions imposed by major powers over its nuclear and missile programs were taking a toll on vulnerable mothers and children.

Domestic violence is prevalent and there is “very limited awareness” about the issue and a lack of legal services, psycho-social support and shelters available for victims, the panel said.

It said economic sanctions had a disproportionate impact on women. North Korean women suffer “high levels of malnutrition”, with 28 percent of pregnant or lactating women affected, it said.

“We have called on the government to be very, very attentive to the situation of food and nutrition. Because we consider that it is a basic need and that the government has to invest and to assume its responsibilities in this field,” Ameline said.

“Unfortunately I am not sure that the situation will improve very quickly.”

The report found that penalties for rape in North Korea were not commensurate with the severity of the crime, which also often goes unpunished. Legal changes in 2012 lowered the penalties for some forms of rape, including the rape of children, rape by a work supervisor and repeated rape.

This has led to reducing the punishment for forcing “a woman in a subordinate position” to have sexual intercourse from four years to three years, the report said.

It said women trafficked abroad and then returned to North Korea, are reported to be sent to labor training camps or prisons, accused of “illegal border crossing”, and may be exposed to further violations of their rights, including sexual violence by security officials and forced abortions.

 

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Alison Williams)

 

Convoy rolls into Damascus suburbs with aid for 40,000

Smoke rises at a damaged site in Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, September 14, 2017.

GENEVA (Reuters) – A convoy from the United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent entered towns in the besieged Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta on Monday, bringing aid to 40,000 people for the first time since June 2016, the United Nations said.

A tightening siege by government forces has pushed people to the verge of famine in the eastern suburbs, residents and aid workers said last week, bringing desperation to the only major rebel enclave near the Syrian capital.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Twitter they had entered the towns of Kafra Batna and Saqba.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said in a separate tweet that the inter-agency convoy had 49 trucks.

They carried food, nutrition and health items for 40,000 people in need, OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said. “The last time we reached these two locations were in June 2016,” he said.

A health worker in Saqba who was present when the convoy started to offload said that nine trucks of foodstuffs, including milk and peanut butter, and four trucks of medicines had arrived so far.

Technical specialists were on board to assess needs in the towns in order to plan a further humanitarian response, he said.

“More aid to complement today’s delivery is planned in the coming days,” Laerke added.

At least 1,200 children in eastern Ghouta suffer from malnutrition, with 1,500 others at risk, a spokeswoman for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said last week.

Bettina Luescher, spokeswoman of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), said the convoy carried nutrition supplies for 16,000 children.

Food, fuel and medicine once travelled across frontlines into the suburbs through a network of underground tunnels. But early this year, an army offensive nearby cut smuggling routes that provided a lifeline for around 300,000 people in the enclave east of the capital.

 

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Alison Williams and Peter Graff)

 

Recovering from severe malnutrition in Yemen

Recovering from severe malnutrition in Yemen

By Abduljabbar Zeyad

HODEIDAH, Yemen (Reuters) – Smiling and sitting down to bread and milk with her family, Yemeni teenager Saida Ahmed Baghili is barely recognizable a year on from the photo of her emaciated frame that came to symbolize the country’s humanitarian crisis.

Baghili now weighs 36kg (80 lb), according to her father, more than triple the 11kg she weighed last October when Reuters first met her at the al-Thawra hospital in Sana’a, where she was undergoing treatment for severe malnutrition.

There the 19-year-old was unable to talk, let alone carry her ghostly, skeletal frame, which is now stronger after weeks of specialist care and time at home.

“Saida’s body got better because she’s eating better, but she’s still having trouble swallowing,” her father Ahmed Baghili said at their home in Hodeidah this month.

“She can only eat milk, biscuits and juice.”

Baghili’s plight reflects that of many families in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country, where a two-and-a-half-year war between a Saudi-led Arab coalition and the Iran-allied Houthi movement has claimed 10,000 lives.

A quarter of the 28 million population are starving, according to the United Nations, with half a million children under the age of 5 severely malnourished and at least 2,135 people killed by cholera.

Ahmed Baghili is only able to supply the basics for his family of 10, who live in a parched village on the Red Sea coast.

Saida, whose illness began before the war, is able to help her father tend to a farmer’s cattle in exchange for milk, with their income boosted by Ahmed making deliveries on his motorcycle and donations from humanitarian organizations.

However, he says he doesn’t have enough money to send Saida for further treatment and still fears for her health. Her last appointment with a doctor was in December.

“We’re worried she might relapse and then we wouldn’t be able to do anything because we have nothing. We don’t have the transportation fee, we don’t have the fee for anything,” he said.

Click on http://reut.rs/2gxeJkK to see a related photo essay

(Writing by Patrick Johnston in LONDON; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Cholera claims unborn children as epidemic spreads Yemen misery

Children wait to be treated at a cholera treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen May 15, 2017. Picture taken May 15, 2017.

By Abduljabbar Zeyad

HODEIDAH, Yemen (Reuters) – One of the latest victims of the cholera epidemic that has killed more than 2,000 people in Yemen had yet to even take her first breath.

Her mother Safaa Issa Kaheel, then nine months pregnant, was brought into a crowded clinic in the Western port city of Hodeidah by her husband, who had to borrow the travel fare from a neighbor. “My stomach started hurting more and more,” said Kaheel, 37, a hydrating drip hooked into her arm.

Once there, she was referred by nurse Hayam al-Shamaa for an ultrasound scan which showed her baby had died of dehydration – one of 15 to perish in the womb due to cholera in September and October, according to doctors at the city’s Thawra hospital.

“I felt like death,” Kaheel said, her voice strained. “Thank god I survived the (delivery), but my diarrhea hasn’t stopped.”

The Red Cross has warned that cholera, a diarrheal disease that has been eradicated in most developed countries, could infect a million people in Yemen by the end of the year.

Two and a half years of war have sapped Yemen of the money and medical facilities it needs to battle the contagion, to which aid agencies and medics say the poor, the starving, the pregnant and the young are most vulnerable.

The cholera ward is full of children – some writhing in agony, others eerily still. The blanket over one boy too weak to move rises and falls with his shallow breathing.

Save the Children said in August that children under 15 represent nearly half of new cases and a third of deaths, with malnourished children more than six times more likely to die of cholera than well-fed ones.

Millions of Yemenis are struggling to find food and the baking desert plains around Hodeidah are hotspots both of hunger and sickness.

Yemen’s war pits the armed Houthi movement against the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition that has launched thousands of air strikes to restore him to power.

At least 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

The country’s health sector has been badly battered while a struggle over the central bank has left public sector salaries for doctors and sanitation workers unpaid.

Soumaya Beltifa, spokesperson for the Red Cross in Sanaa, warned that a lack of funds and health personnel were blunting efforts to eradicate the disease, making it unlikely Yemen would be healthy again soon.

“The cholera epidemic has become a norm, leading to complacency in dealing with the disease, not only by civilians but also from the various (aid) organizations,” she warned.

 

Babies starve as war grinds on in Mosul

Patients Iraqi children lie at a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres in Qayyara, Iraq April 6, 2017. Picture taken April 6, 2016. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Isabel Coles

QAYYARA, Iraq (Reuters) – The babies cry with hunger but are so severely malnourished that doctors treating them at a hospital in Iraq would make their condition worse if they fed them enough to stop the pangs.

Many of the starving infants are from Mosul, where war between Islamic State militants and Iraqi forces is taking a heavy toll on several hundred thousand civilians trapped inside the city.

A new, specialist ward was opened recently to deal with the growing number of children from Mosul showing signs of malnutrition as the conflict grinds on -– most of them less than six-months-old.

That means they were born around the time Iraqi forces severed Islamic State’s last major supply route from Mosul to Syria, besieging the militants inside the city, but also creating acute shortages of food.

“Normally nutritional crises are much more common in Africa and not in this kind of country,” said pediatrician Rosanna Meneghetti at the hospital, which is run by aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Qayyara, about 60 km (40 miles) south of Mosul. “We did not anticipate this”.

So far, the number of cases recorded is below the level considered critical but it nonetheless highlights the hardship faced by civilians who are effectively being held hostage by Islamic State.

Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition have retaken most of the city but are struggling to dislodge the militants from several districts in the west, including the Old City.

Residents who have managed to escape say there is almost nothing to eat but flour mixed with water and boiled wheat grain.

What little food remains is too expensive for most residents to afford, or kept for Islamic State members and their supporters.

FORMULA MILK SHORTAGE

In the ward, a team of doctors monitors the babies’ progress in grams, feeding them a special peanut-based paste that will gradually accustom them to eating and increase their weight.

On one bed lies a six-month-old boy weighing 2.4 kg – less than half the median weight for an infant of that age.

The diminutive patients are also treated for other diseases associated with malnutrition, which weakens the immune system, making them even more vulnerable.

“It’s a new thing in Iraq,” said MSF project coordinator Isabelle Legall. “Most of the (Iraqi) doctors have never seen it (malnutrition)”.

Part of the problem, Legall said, is a lack of tradition of breast-feeding among Iraqi mothers, who usually raise their babies on formula milk, which is now almost impossible to come by in Mosul.

Even if they want to breastfeed, many mothers find it difficult due to the physical and emotional strain of living in a warzone: “The mother is very stressed and can’t find much food herself so cannot produce so much milk,” Meneghetti said.

One of the mothers from Mosul told the doctors she had no option but to feed her baby sugar dissolved in water, yogurt, or a mixture of flour and water.

“All of this is because of Daesh (Islamic State),” said another mother, keeping vigil over her emaciated baby.

Some of the babies come from villages that were retaken from Islamic State months ago, pointing to a wider trend of food insecurity.

TWO PATIENTS TO A BED

On average, more than half the patients seen in the emergency room of the MSF hospital are under the age of 15, partly because there is a shortage of pediatricians in the area, so many children are referred there.

Signs on the doors of the portacabins that house different wards prohibit visitors from entering with weapons.

The pediatric ward is so full there are two patients to each bed, and most of the women’s wing is taken up by children recovering from war injuries such as broken limbs, burns and shrapnel.

Many babies are brought to the hospital with respiratory problems such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia -– most of them from camps for the displaced, where cramped conditions enable viruses to spread.

Two children buried under blankets are suffering from birth asphyxia which occurs when a baby’s brain and other organs do not get enough oxygen before, during or immediately after being born.

Meneghetti said their mothers had probably needed a surgical birth but were unable to reach a hospital so delivered at home and experienced complications.

Lying listless on another bed is a boy who was wounded by shrapnel when his father picked up a box of explosives, intending to move the danger away. It blew up in his hands, wounding them both along with several other family members.

The expression on eight-year-old Dua Nawaf’s face is haunting.

The girl suffered burns to the head and hands in an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition that killed more than 100 people in the Mosul Jadida district last month, including both her parents.

“The family told me this morning that she (Dua) had some problems, especially in the night, so we are organising a mental health (assessment) for her,” Meneghetti said, reaching into her pocket for a balloon, which she inflated and gave to the girl.

Only the faintest hint of a smile appeared on Dua’s face.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Yemen war erases decade of health gains, many children starving: UNICEF

UNICEF logo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Yemen has lost a decade’s worth of gains in public health as a result of war and economic crisis, with increasing numbers of children succumbing to malnutrition, the United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.

An estimated 3.3 million people, including 2.2 million children, across the Arab peninsula’s poorest country are suffering from acute malnutrition, and 460,000 under the age of five have severe acute malnutrition, the agency said.

The most severe form leaves young children vulnerable to life-threatening diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections.

“What worries us is the severe acute malnutrition because it is killing children,” Meritxell Relano, UNICEF representative in Yemen, told Reuters in Geneva.

“Because of the crumbling health system, the conflict and economic crisis, we have gone back to 10 years ago. A decade has been lost in health gains,” she said, with 63 out of every 1,000 live births now dying before their fifth birthday, against 53 children in 2014.

Children and pregnant and lactating women are most heavily affected by the malnutrition crisis in the northern province of Saada, in the coastal area of Hodeida and in Taiz in the south, she said.

UNICEF mobile teams aim to screen more children and reach 323,000 severely malnourished children this year, up from 237,000 last year, Relano said, adding that partner agencies would target the rest.

The Yemeni conflict, which pits a Saudi-led Arab coalition against the Iran-allied Houthi movement, has left more than half of the country’s 28 million people “food insecure”, with seven million of them enduring hunger, the United Nations has said.

Jamie McGoldrick, the top U.N. aid official in the country, told Reuters on Friday that Yemen has roughly three months’ supply of wheat left to draw from, leaving the country exposed to serious disruption as a central bank crisis cuts food imports and starvation deepens.

Relano said UNICEF had made progress in delivering supplies of energy-rich foods for severely malnourished children.

“We managed to bring supplies into the country. We have 50 percent in the country secured for this year,” she said.

UNICEF is seeking $236.5 million for Yemen this year, as part of its overall appeal of $3.3 billion to help women and children in 48 countries.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Myanmar allows food aid delivery to conflict-torn region

Children recycle goods from the ruins of a market which was set on fire at a Rohingya village outside Maugndaw in Rakhine state, Myanmar,

By Simon Lewis

YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar is allowing the first food deliveries for more than four weeks to the troubled north of Rakhine state, the UN humanitarian agency announced on Monday, amid an ongoing military lockdown of the area.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement that the World Food Programme had been granted permission to deliver aid to four villages, but repeated a call for full access to the area where tens of thousands remain cut off from assistance.

Rakhine Buddhists who fled from recent violence in Maungdaw pass their time in a temporary shelter at a stadium in Sittwe, Myanmar, Octobe

Rakhine Buddhists who fled from recent violence in Maungdaw pass their time in a temporary shelter at a stadium in Sittwe, Myanmar, October 25, 2016. Picture taken October 25, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

“This is the first time humanitarian access has been granted to the affected areas of Maungdaw Township since the violence that erupted on 9 October,” the statement said.

Security forces have fanned out in the Muslim-majority region seeking the perpetrators of attacks in early October in which nine border guard police officers were killed.

The government believes a group of some 400 Rohingya Muslims with links to Islamists overseas planned and executed the attacks.

At least 33 alleged attackers and five government soldiers have been killed. Another police officer was also killed by motorcycle-riding assailants in the latest incident on Thursday, according to state media.

The military has designated the area an “operation zone,” blocking aid deliveries to the Rohingya population and barring foreign journalists and observers from entering.

Human rights monitors and members of the mostly stateless Rohingya community say troops have shot civilians on sight, raped Rohingya women and looted and burned homes during the operation.

The government, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, denies any abuses have been committed.

Diplomats and the United Nations have been pushing an independent investigation, as well as for aid access to be resumed in the Maungdaw area.

“The UN continues to advocate strongly for full access to all affected areas to assess and respond to all humanitarian needs and to resume pre-existing humanitarian activities,” the OCHA said.

The high-level diplomatic mission from the UN, United States and Britain visited the area last week and told reporters officials had agreed to allow the resumption of pre-existing aid programs in the area and to extend assistance to newly displaced people.

Approximately 150,000 people had been cut off from food, cash and nutrition assistance for the past four weeks, the statement said.

WFP had been granted access to four affected villages, it said, without stating how many people would be reached.

OCHA’s head of office in Myanmar, Mark Cutts, said in a post on Twitter it was “welcome news that some food aid in #Maungdaw given go-ahead, but thousands of malnourished children still waiting for life-saving treatment.”

Before the current crises erupted, there was a malnutrition rate of 19 percent among children aged under five in Maungdaw, according to statistics cited in a WFP report in May.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)