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Monday, 17 February, 2003, 01:05 GMT
Swiss talks focus on Iraq war relief
Iraqi refugees in 1991
The UN has appealed for $100m in aid if war breaks out

Major aid agencies and 29 governments have been meeting in Geneva this weekend to discuss humanitarian operations in case of a war on Iraq.

The two-day closed meeting was organised by the Swiss Government to take stock of preparations and to coordinate supplies and staff in the Gulf region, in case of mass casualties and massive refugee movements.

All the states which share borders with Iraq, the European Union and four of the permanent Security Council members attended the conference.

The United States declined to join, saying it failed to say what it could add to arrangements already made.

Iraq uninvited

This was a meeting designed to assess the general vulnerability of the civilian population in Iraq and to discuss improving funding for relief work in the event of war.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey at the conference
The whole event planned by Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey
Political discussions were not on the agenda.

Iraq itself was deliberately not invited to attend, to prevent the conference moving away from its practical focus on humanitarian aid.

Much of the talking centred on what impact a collapse in the "oil for food" programme would have on Iraqi citizens.

Agencies estimated that at least 60% of people would be short of food if the scheme failed.

Rules of war

Delegates also discussed the necessity to protect next month's harvest in the event of any bombing, warning that if the crop was spoiled the result would soon be seen in human tragedy.

Balthasar Staehelin from the Red Cross said they had used the meeting as a means to remind any potential warring parties of their duty to protect persons not involved in hostilities.

"What we try to do is to underline the importance of international humanitarian law, the law of armed conflict," he said.

"That was an important message for us; that if war cannot be avoided that at least there must be full respect of this body of law."

The UN has appealed for more than $100m since December to get food and other humanitarian supplies in place in case of war.

Delegates at the Geneva conference said funding was still extremely short, but declined to give figures on how much more money they anticipated needing.


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