Dorian’s death toll in Bahamas rises to 50 – official

NASSAU, Bahamas (Reuters) – Hurricane Dorian’s rampage through the Bahamas last week killed at least 50 people, largely on the hard-hit Great Abaco Island, an official said on Tuesday.

That is up from the last-reported figure of 45, Carl Smith, a spokesman for the islands’ National Emergency Management Agency, told reporters. Evacuees, rescue workers and officials widely expect the number to climb higher as more bodies are pulled from the rubble of a demolished neighborhood in Marsh Harbour in Abaco.

Dorian pummeled the Bahamas with 200-mile-per-hour (320-km-per-hour) winds. It was one of the strongest Caribbean hurricanes on record and stands as the worst disaster in Bahamian history.

As relief efforts got underway slowly, stirring frustration among locals, several Bahamians said they might attempt to emigrate to the United States rather than face an uncertain rebuilding at home.

It is not clear whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which has sought to severely curtail legal and illegal immigration, will smooth their path.

But a growing chorus of Congress members, including Florida Republicans Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, have called for a suspension of visa requirements to help reunite stranded Bahamians with U.S. relatives.

Some 70,000 people were in need of food and shelter, the World Food Programme estimated. Private forecasters estimated that some $3 billion in insured property was destroyed or damaged in the Caribbean.

(Reporting by Zachary Fageson, writing by Maria Caspani; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

South Korea gives most aid to North Korea since 2008 amid food shortage

FILE PHOTO: North Koreans farm in a field along the Yalu River, in Sakchu county, North Phyongan Province, North Korea, June 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jacky Chen/File Photo

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea has provided its largest food and aid donation since 2008 to U.N. aid program in North Korea, officials said on Wednesday, amid warnings that millions of dollars more is needed to make up for food shortages.

South Korea followed through on a promise to donate $4.5 million to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), and announced it was also providing 50,000 tonnes of rice for delivery to its northern neighbor.

North Korea has said it is facing droughts, and U.N. aid agencies have said food production fell “dramatically” last year, leaving more than 10 million North Koreans at risk.

“This is the largest donation from the Republic of Korea to WFP DPRK since 2008 and will support 1.5 to 2 million children, pregnant and nursing mothers,” WFP senior spokesman Herve Verhoosel said in a statement, referring to his agency’s operation in North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

More aid would be needed, however, to make up for the shortfalls, he said.

“WFP estimates that at least 300,000 metric tons of food, valued at $275 million, is needed to scale up humanitarian assistance in support of those people most affected by significant crop losses over successive seasons,” Verhoosel said.

North Korea is under strict international sanctions over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

While inter-Korean engagement spiked last year amid a push to resolve the nuclear standoff, Seoul’s efforts to engage with Pyongyang have been less successful after a second U.S.-North Korea summit ended with no agreement in February.

SANCTIONS A PROBLEM

South Korea would work with the WFP to get the aid as quickly as possible to the North Korean people who need, the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, said in a statement.

“The timing and scale of additional food assistance to North Korea will be determined in consideration of the outcome of the aid provision this time,” the ministry said.

According to South Korean officials the rice is worth 127 billion won ($108 million).

The government would aim to have the rice delivered before September, and officials were in touch with counterparts in North Korea, Unification minister Kim Yeon-chul told reporters.

South Korea’s Agriculture Ministry said the last time South Korea sent rice to North Korea was in 2010, when 5,000 tonnes were donated. The largest donation ever was in 2005 when South Korean sent 500,000 tonnes of rice.

Seoul also recently donated $3.5 million to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for humanitarian projects in North Korea.

Technically humanitarian aid is not blocked by the sanctions, but aid organizations said sanctions enforcement and a U.S. ban on its citizens traveling to North Korea had slowed and in some cases prevented aid from reaching the country.

Aid shipments have also been controversial because of fears that North Korea’s authoritarian government would divert the supplies or potentially profit off it.

Verhoosel said the WFP would require “high standards for access and monitoring” to be in place before distributing any aid.

In March, Russia donated more than 2,000 tonnes of wheat to the WFP’s North Korea program.

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin.; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Cyclone kills one, leaves trail of destruction across Mozambique

Damaged properties are pictured after Cyclone Kenneth swept through the region in Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique April 26, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Picture taken from inside a vehicle. UNICEF via REUTERS

By Emma Rumney and Stephen Eisenhammer

JOHANNESBURG/LUANDA (Reuters) – Cyclone Kenneth killed at least one person and left a trail of destruction in northern Mozambique, destroying houses, ripping up trees and knocking out power, authorities said on Friday.

The cyclone brought storm surges and wind gusts of up to 280 km per hour (174 mph) when it made landfall on Thursday evening, after killing three people in the island nation of Comoros.

It was the most powerful storm on record to hit Mozambique’s northern coast and came just six weeks after Cyclone Idai battered the impoverished nation, causing devastating floods and killing more than 1,000 people across a swathe of southern Africa.

The World Food Programme warned that Kenneth could dump as much as 600 millimeters of rain on the region over the next 10 days – twice that brought by Cyclone Idai.

One woman in the port town of Pemba died after being hit by a falling tree, the Emergency Operations Committee for Cabo Delgado (COE) said in a statement, while another person was injured.

In rural areas outside Pemba, many homes are made of mud. In the main town on the island of Ibo, 90 percent of the houses were destroyed, officials said. Around 15,000 people were out in the open or in “overcrowded” shelters and there was a need for tents, food and water, they said.

There were also reports of a large number of homes and some infrastructure destroyed in Macomia district, a mainland district adjacent to Ibo.

A local group, the Friends of Pemba Association, had earlier reported that they could not reach people in Muidumbe, a district further inland.

Mark Lowcock, United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, warned the storm could require another major humanitarian operation in Mozambique.

“Cyclone Kenneth marks the first time two cyclones have made landfall in Mozambique during the same season, further stressing the government’s limited resources,” he said in a statement.

FLOOD WARNINGS

Shaquila Alberto, owner of the beach-front Messano Flower Lodge in Macomia, said there were many fallen trees there, and in rural areas people’s homes had been damaged. Some areas of nearby Pemba had no power.

“Even my workers, they said the roof and all the things fell down,” she said by phone.

Further south, in Pemba, Elton Ernesto, a receptionist at Raphael’s Hotel, said there were fallen trees but not too much damage. The hotel had power and water, he said, while phones rang in the background. “The rain has stopped,” he added.

However Michael Charles, an official for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said heavy rains over the next few days were likely to bring a “second wave of destruction” in the form of flooding.

“The houses are not all solid, and the topography is very sandy,” Charles said.

In the days after Cyclone Idai, heavy inland rains prompted rivers to burst their banks, submerging entire villages, cutting areas off from aid and ruining crops. There were concerns the same could happen again in northern Mozambique.

Before Kenneth hit, the government and aid workers moved around 30,000 people to safer buildings such as schools, however authorities said that around 680,000 people were in the path of the storm.

(Reporting by Emma Rumney and Stephen Eisenhammer; Writing by Emma Rumney; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Alexandra Zavis)

Yemen’s Houthis deny U.N. access to Hodeidah mills for ‘safety reasons’: sources

ADEN (Reuters) – Houthi forces denied the United Nations access to a grain storage site in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah on Tuesday, sources familiar with the matter said, hindering efforts to increase food aid to millions facing severe hunger.

Hodeidah is the entry point for most of Yemen’s humanitarian aid and commercial imports. World Food Programme (WFP) grain stores there have been cut off in the conflict zone for six months, putting the contents at risk of rotting.

A WFP technical team was scheduled to cross the front line between the Iran-aligned Houthi movement forces and the Saudi-backed government on the eastern outskirts of Hodeidah to fumigate the wheat stored in the Red Sea Mills.

But Houthi forces told the WFP team they could not leave Houthi-held areas inside Hodeidah city for “security reasons”, asking the United Nations instead for a way to investigate attacks on the mills.

“The Houthis argued that government forces will target the U.N. and then they will be blamed for it,” one source aware of the discussion said. “(But) if the wheat is not fumigated, it will be lost.”

The WFP regained access to the mills last month, a step hailed by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The grain stores there have more than 51,000 tonnes of wheat, enough to feed 3.7 million people.

WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said a WFP mission to the Red Sea Mills was scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed due to “safety concerns”. Verhooseldeclined to give details.

Houthi officials did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Yemeni government officials accused the Houthis of another violation of the peace agreement signed last year which the United Nations has been struggling to implement.

The Houthis and the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi agreed at U.N.-sponsored talks in December to a truce and troop withdrawal from Hodeidah.

But talks aimed at securing a mutual military withdrawal from Hodeidah have stalled despite U.N. efforts to salvage the deal and nudge both sides to agree on steps toward disengagement after four years of war.

Under the deal, the government retreat would free up access to the Red Sea Mills and humanitarian corridors would also be reopened. The warring sides would still need to agree on which road could be used to transport supplies from the site to needy recipients.

The WFP is now reaching about 10 million Yemenis per month with food aid and hopes to scale up to 12 million this year, but sporadic clashes make Hodeidah and its province unsafe despite the ceasefire agreement.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are leading a military coalition that is backing Hadi government forces fighting the Houthis. The war that killed tens of thousands and thrust Yemen to the verge of famine.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Mohamed Ghobari and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

WFP to double food aid to Yemen, says 14 million risk starvation

FILE PHOTO: A malnourished boy lies on a weighing scale at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Food Programme plans to double its food assistance program for Yemen, aiming to reach up to 14 million people “to avert mass starvation”, it said in a statement on Thursday.

“Yemen is the largest hunger crisis in the world. Millions of people are living on the edge of famine and the situation is getting worse by the day,” said the U.N. agency, which is already providing food assistance to 7-8 million Yemenis.

“WFP food and other humanitarian support have been instrumental in helping to prevent famine, but the indications are that even greater efforts will be needed to avert mass starvation.”

FILE PHOTO: A nurse looks as he weighs a malnourished girl at a malnutrition treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen October 7, 2018. Picture taken October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah - RC17C03A5010/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A nurse looks as he weighs a malnourished girl at a malnutrition treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen October 7, 2018. Picture taken October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah – RC17C03A5010/File Photo

Food security experts including U.N. and Yemeni government officials conducted an assessment in Yemen last month and are expected to issue their report this month, declaring whether or not parts of the country are in famine.

The last report in March 2017 stopped short of declaring famine but said 6.8 million people were in an “emergency”. The new report could put the number at 12 million-14 million, the WFP statement said.

“This would mean nearly half the population having so little to eat that they are just one step away from starvation.”

The hunger crisis is man-made, caused by Yemen’s civil war, economic collapse and problems getting shipments into the country, which traditionally relies on imports for well over half its food.

Most of the aid would be food supplies but some would be given in cash-based transfers, WFP said.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF says a child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen from diseases that could easily be prevented, and half of Yemeni children are chronically malnourished.

According to the World Health Organization, acute malnutrition affects 1.8 million children under five, and about a third of Yemen’s districts are at risk of sliding into famine.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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)

A child dies, a child lives: why Somalia drought is not another famine

A Somali girl is seen at a internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Maggie Fick and Katharine Houreld

DOLLOW, Somalia (Reuters) – At the height of Somalia’s 2011 famine, Madow Mohamed had to leave her crippled five-year-old son Abdirahman by the side of the road to lead her eight other starving children toward help.

When she returned to search for him, she found only a grave. He was among the 260,000 Somalis who perished.

“You can never forget leaving your child to die,” she says, wiping away tears at the memory seven years later. “It is a hell that does not end.”

This time, the drought has been harsher. Three seasons of rains have failed, instead of two. But none of Mohamed’s other children have died – and the overall death toll, although unknown, is far lower. The United Nations has documented just over 1,000 deaths, mostly from drinking dirty water.

Why?

Earlier donor intervention, less interference by a weakened Islamist insurgency, a stronger Somali government and greater access for aid workers have been crucial.

Somali women stand in line to receive infants food aid in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 26, 2018. Picture taken February 26, 2018.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Somali women stand in line to receive infants food aid in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 26, 2018. Picture taken February 26, 2018.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Another reason is that aid agencies are shifting from giving out food to cash – a less wasteful form of aid that donors such as Canada, Europe and Australia have embraced, although the United States still has restrictions on food aid.

The U.S. Congress will debate a move toward cash-based aid this year when lawmakers vote on a new Farm Bill. Christopher Barrett, an expert on food aid at Cornell University, is one of many scholars, politicians and aid agencies demanding reform.

“A conservative estimate is that we sacrifice roughly 40,000 children’s lives annually because of antiquated food aid policies,” he told Congress in November.

 

FROM FOOD TO CASH

In 2011, a few donors gave out cash in Somalia, but the World Food Programme only gave out food. It was often hijacked by warlords or pirates, or rotted under tarpaulins as trucks sat at roadblocks.

Starving families had to trek for days through the desert to reach distribution points. Their route became so littered with children’s corpses it was called “the Road of Death”.

Now, more than 70 percent of WFP aid in Somalia is cash, much of it distributed via mobile phones. More than 50 other charities are also giving out cash: each month Mohamed receives $65 from the Italian aid group Coopi to spend as she wants: milk, medicine, food or school fees.

Cash has many advantages over food aid if markets are functioning. It’s invisible, so less likely to be stolen. It’s mobile so families can move or stay put.

WFP said it gave out $134 million directly to Somali families to spend at local shops last year.

A woman walks past thw makeshift shelters at the new Kabasa Internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A woman walks past thw makeshift shelters at the new Kabasa Internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

“We … basically gave confidence to the market to stay active,” said Laurent Bukera, head of WFP Somalia.

And money is more efficient than bags of food: in Somalia, cash aid means 80 cents in every $1 goes directly to the family, rather than 60 cents from food aid, said Calum McLean, the cash expert at the European Union’s humanitarian aid department.

Cash might have saved little Abdirahman.

“I could have stayed in my village if I had had cash. There was some food in the markets. It was expensive, but if you had money, there was food to buy,” Mohamed said sadly.

GLOBAL SHIFT

Aid groups have been experimenting with cash for two decades but McLean says the idea took off five years ago as the Syrian civil war propelled millions of refugees into countries with solid banking systems.

Donors have adapted. Six years ago, five percent of the EU’s humanitarian aid budget was cash distributions. Today, it is more than a third.

Most of the initial cost lies in setting up the database and the distribution system. After that, adding more recipients is cheap, McLean said. Amounts can be easily adjusted depending on the level of need or funding.

“Cash distributions also becomes cheaper the larger scale you do it,” he said.

Most U.S. international food assistance is delivered by USAID’s Food for Peace Office, which had a budget of $3.6 billion in 2017.

Just under half those funds came through U.S. Farm Bill Title II appropriations, which stipulate that most food must be bought from American farmers. The U.S. Cargo Preference Act requires that half of this be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels.

Despite these restrictions, Food for Peace increased cash and voucher programs from 3 percent of the budget in 2011 to 20 percent last year.

But sourcing food aid in the United States is expensive and wasteful, said Barrett, who oversaw a study that found buying grain close to an emergency was half the price and 14 weeks faster. Arguments that food aid supported U.S. farmers or mariners were largely false, he said.

HOW IT WORKS

Aid groups use different systems to distribute cash, but most assess families, then register them in a biometric database, usually via fingerprints. Cash is distributed using bank cards or mobile phones or as vouchers.

Some charities place no restrictions on the cash; others, like WFP, stipulate it can only be spent at certain shops with registered shopkeepers.

In Dollow, the dusty town on the Ethiopian border where Mohamed lives with her surviving children, families say the cash has transformed their lives.

Gacalo Aden Hashi, a young mother whose name means “sweetheart”, remembers trudging past two dead children in 2011 on her way to get help. A third was alive but dying, she said, and her weakened family had to press on.

When she arrived at the camp, men were stealing food aid to give to their families, she said.

“Men were punching each other in line every time at food distributions,” she said. “Sometimes you would be sitting and suddenly your food would be taken by some strong young man.”

Now, she says, no one can steal her money – Coopi uses a system that requires a PIN to withdraw money. Most of her cash goes on food but with a group of other women she saved enough to open a small stall.

“The cash may end, but this business will not,” she said.

PROBLEMS PERSIST

Cash won’t work everywhere. In South Sudan, where famine briefly hit two counties last year, the civil war shut markets, forcing aid agencies to bring in food by plane and truck.

Sending cash to areas hit by earthquakes would drive up prices. But in a drought, where livelihoods have collapsed but infrastructure is intact, cash transfers are ideal, experts say.

Some problems remain. There’s often little co-ordination among donors – for instance, there are seven separate databases in Somalia, said McLean, and monthly stipends can vary widely.

In Uganda, authorities are investigating reports of fraud after the government used its own biometric registration system for refugees.

And if there’s no clean water or health service available, then refugees can’t spend money buying water or medicine.

But most scholars agree that switching to more cash aid would save more lives, a 2016 briefing paper by the Congressional Research Service concluded.

(Additional reporting by George Obulutsa; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Famine threatens half of Yemen, U.N. agency says

SANAA (Reuters) – Nearly half of Yemen’s 22 provinces on the verge of famine as result of the war there and more than 13 million people need food aid, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) says.

Aid groups have blamed curbs imposed by the Saudi-led coalition on access to Houthi-controlled ports for the crisis and also accuse Houthis of preventing supplies from reaching some areas, including the city of Taiz in the southwest.

“From a food security perspective, 10 of Yemen’s 22 provinces are classified as emergency, which is one step before famine,” Adham Musallam, deputy director of the WFP office in the capital Sanaa, said as the agency launched a food voucher program to help the most needy.

Fighting over the past year has displaced about 2.3 million people and left more than half of Yemen’s 26 million population in need of food aid, Musallam said.

“This means that we must not wait until the situation reaches famine but must act now to provide humanitarian aid directly,” Musallam said.

The Houthis took over Sanaa in September 2014, ousting President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, then seized his temporary headquarters in the southern port city of Aden.

The Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened in March 2015 to try to restore Hadi to power and roll back Houthi gains. More than 6,200 people have been killed in the conflict, half of them civilians.

To counter the food crisis, the WFP has launched a program of emergency food vouchers to provide up to one million people with basic needs eventually.

In Sanaa, which is still under Houthi control, hundreds of people queued for hours to register for the vouchers. Under the program a family of six receives wheat grain, pulses, vegetable oil, salt and sugar provided by the WFP through a local supplier.

But one Sanaa resident expressed concern that the aid might not be sustained.

“We would like to have rations provided for the entire month, not just for a week or five days,” he told Reuters TV.

Many Yemenis have sought refuge in Sanaa after air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition destroyed their homes, especially in northern Yemen, where the Houthis, a Zaydi Shi’ite group, come from.

The United Nations, which had hosted two inconclusive rounds of peace talks in Switzerland last year, is pressing ahead on the diplomatic front for another round of negotiations. A senior Yemeni official said on Tuesday it might take place in Kuwait next month.

“The Yemeni people appreciate the need for humanitarian assistance but what they really need is an end to the war which is more important,” said Radman Hassan, a food voucher recipient.

(Writing by Sami Aboudi, editing by Sylvia Westall and Angus MacSwan)

WFP warns of serious food shortages in besieged Fallujah

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Humanitarian disaster is looming in the western Iraq city of Fallujah, an Islamic State stronghold under siege by security forces, where tens of thousands of people face food shortages, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday.

There is no flour, rice, sugar or oil available in Fallujah and the prices of the little food that is left have risen sharply, the agency quoted Fallujah residents as telling it.

Fuel and cooking oil are no longer available and the price of a kilo of flour leaped to $20 in January, up more than 800 percent from December, the WFP said.

The Iraqi army, police and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias – backed by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition – imposed a near total siege late last year on Fallujah, located 30 miles west of Baghdad in the Euphrates river valley.

“The humanitarian situation in Fallujah is dire and residents need immediate assistance,” WFP spokeswoman Marwa Awad told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We are aware that no food is going into the city and that militant groups are controlling the remaining food supplies.”

It has been too dangerous for the WFP to reach the area since September, when it delivered a one-month supply of food to 400 families in Garma, 6 miles from Fallujah, she said.

“We are deeply concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation inside Fallujah where many people require immediate food assistance,” Awad said. “We are ready to help but we are on standby until … the authorities give the green light to go in.”

Of the estimated 30,000 – 60,000 residents of Fallujah, a “significant number” are surviving on potatoes and other local food, after moving towards rural areas on the outskirts of the city, Awad said by phone from Iraq.

“We call on all parties to allow access to prevent a humanitarian disaster,” she said. “Sadly, everyone is focused on Syria and Yemen and the international community is no longer prioritizing Iraq, that’s the problem.”

In January, 32 people were reported to have died from starvation in Syria in areas that had been under siege for months.

Fallujah, a long-time bastion of Sunni Muslim jihadists, was the first Iraqi city to fall to Islamic State, in January 2014, six months before the group swept through large parts of northern and western Iraq and neighboring Syria.

(Reporting by Magdalena Mis, editing by Tim Pearce.)

U.N. aims to air drop food to ISIS-besieged city in eastern Syria

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations plans to make its first air drops of food aid in Syria, to Deir al-Zor, an eastern town of 200,000 besieged by Islamic State militants, the chair of a U.N. humanitarian task force said on Thursday.

U.N. aid agencies do not have direct access to areas held by Islamic State, including Deir al-Zor, where civilians face severe food shortages and sharply deteriorating conditions.

Jan Egeland, speaking to reporters in Geneva a day after U.N. aid convoys reached five areas, some besieged by government forces and others by rebels, said the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) had a “concrete plan” for carrying out the Deir al-Zor operation in coming days.

He said the WFP hoped to make progress reaching “the poor people inside Deir al-Zor, which is besieged by Islamic State. That can only be done by air drops,” said Egeland.

“It’s a complicated operation and would be in many ways the first of its kind,” Egeland said, giving no details of the air operation, which is far more costly than land convoys.

Egeland, who is head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, later told Reuters in Oslo: “It is either airdrops or nothing. Airdrops are a desperate measure in desperate times.”

A WFP official was not available to comment on where cargo planes would depart from or what they would carry.

Deir al-Zor is the main town in a province of the same name. The province links Islamic State’s de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa with territory controlled by the militant group in neighboring Iraq.

Egeland chaired a three-hour meeting of the humanitarian task force on Syria, where he said that many member states pledged support for the attempt to reach Deir al-Zor.

Russia is Syria’s main ally in the five-year war, while Western and Arab states support rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.N. estimates there are 486,700 people in around 15 besieged areas of Syria, and 4.6 million in hard-to-reach areas. In some, starvation deaths and severe malnutrition have been reported.

“We hope to be able to reach the remaining areas in the next days,” Egeland said, adding the group would meet again in a week.

Britain’s foreign minister Philip Hammond said in a statement: “Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is unacceptable. The international community and particularly Russia, which has unique influence, must put pressure on the Assad regime to lift sieges and grant full humanitarian access.”

In the past 24 hours, 114 U.N. trucks delivered life-saving food and medical supplies to 80,000 people in five besieged areas, enough for one month, Egeland said.

These were Madaya, Zabadani and Mouadamiya al-Sham near Damascus, which are under siege by government forces, and the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province, surrounded by rebel fighters.

It marked the “beginning of the task” assigned by ministers from major and regional powers who met a week ago in Munich.

But some “vital medical items” were not delivered, he said.

A spokesman for the World Health Organization (WHO) said that government forces had removed some medicines for emergency and trauma care from supplies bound for Mouadamiya, but had allowed a hemodialysis machine for diabetics, medicines and nutritional supplements.

(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; additional reporting by Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Dominic Evans and Katharine Houreld)