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Wednesday, 12 April, 2000, 23:43 GMT 00:43 UK
Urgent plea for famine aid
Hungry children in Gode
Children are being turned away from feeding centres
UN special envoy Catherine Bertini has begun a visit to drought-stricken Ethiopia with a plea to the West to commit more food aid.

Ms Bertini, head of the UN World Food Programme, is touring areas of the Horn of Africa hardest hit by drought and hunger. Up to 16 million lives are threatened across the region.

We have to come out of the trip with a good knowledge of the needs, and a plea to the international community to help

Catherine Bertini

Ms Bertini visited Gode in the remote south-eastern Ogaden region, where there has been scarcely any rain for three years.

Gode - 500km south-east of the capital, Addis Ababa - is the largest town in the area, and nomadic families weakened by hunger have trekked there as a last resort.

The UN envoy later flew to Addis Ababa ahead of a meeting with Prime Minster Meles Zenawi on Thursday.

'Time to act'

"Now is the time for the international community to act," Ms Bertini said as she began her mission.

ethiopian child
Some people walk for two weeks to get aid

"We have to come out of the trip with a good knowledge of the needs, and a plea to the international community to help more than they already have."

Plans for eight more feeding centres in the region would be drawn up, she said.

One sign of hope arrived at the Gode airstrip along with Ms Bertini's team - a Red Cross plane loaded with high protein biscuits, the first in a series of daily aid flights that will continue for at least two months.

There is a desperate queue for admission to feeding centres in the town, where children receive rehydration treatment and high protein foods to help them back from the brink of death.

Some reports say parents are having to watch their children die one by one.

There has been some rain in the past few days, but too little and too late to ensure a harvest this season.

Eight million people are estimated to be at risk from famine in Ethiopia. Agencies say close to one million tonnes of aid is needed to feed them, but the international community has not yet promised that amount.

After three days in Ethiopia, Ms Bertini will visit Djibouti, Eritrea and Kenya, which are also affected by the drought.

Border war

There has been criticism recently from the European Union and the UN that the two-year border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea has exacerbated the humanitarian situation.

Adan Mohammed lost two of her children
Adan Mohammed lost a daughter and a son on her 10-day trek to Gode

There has not been any serious fighting for some time, but both sides are believed to have about 500,000 troops available.

The Ethiopian Government has said it is "profoundly surprised" by the international criticism, and has blamed distribution problems on the donor countries' slow response to its urgent appeals for food supplies.

Landlocked Ethiopia has refused offers from Eritrea to use the port of Assab, which has good road connections to the affected areas, dismissing the proposal as a "public relations gimmick".

Instead it is relying heavily on the southern port of Djibouti to bring in the aid, which is causing delays in delivery.

Neither side appears willing to make concessions in order to resolve the conflict.

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See also:

12 Apr 00 | Africa
Famine devastates Somali family
12 Apr 00 | Africa
In pictures: Famine in Gode
06 Apr 00 | Talking Point
Ethiopia: Too late to avert catastrophe?
31 Mar 00 | Africa
Why is famine back again?
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