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Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 March, 2003, 23:16 GMT
UN readies Iraq food crisis plan
By David Willey
BBC correspondent in Rome

Iraqi mother and child
Aid agencies fear for ordinary Iraqis
The United Nations food agency, believing that it may be facing the largest and most costly humanitarian crisis in history, is making contingency plans to feed the people of Iraq.

In New York, the UN Secretary General is seeking immediate authorisation from the Security Council to take over the agency's oil-for-food programme.

It has been jointly administered until now by Baghdad and the UN.

The programme, which has been in operation since 1996, collapsed with the outbreak of war and the evacuation of UN personnel, leaving 60% of Iraqis without access to fresh food.

Officials at the World Food Programme (WFP) headquarters in Rome are deeply concerned.

Iraqi woman collects Oil-For-Food rations
Programme aims to give Iraqis 2,470 calories per day
570,000 tonnes of food a month
44,000 distribution agents
Five entry points
$1.27bn for current 6 months

Under their new plan Iraq's oil revenues are channelled into a UN bank account from which Saddam Hussein has been paying for food, medicine and other basic necessities for the civilian population.

The programme avoids the UN trade embargo imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

WFP officials say the Iraqis have only about six weeks' food supplies in reserve.

Their warehouses are almost empty and unless very large quantities of food reach Iraq soon, there could be a devastating hunger crisis.

So far the UN agency has stockpiled about 30,000 tonnes of food in countries bordering Iraq - that is enough to feed two million people for one month.

Open borders plea

But Iraq's population is 26 million and if the war drags on, in a month's time the agency might have to feed the entire population.

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food have to be ordered within days.

The final cost could be more than $1bn.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, another UN agency, the High Commission for Refugees, has appealed to Iraq's neighbours to keep their borders open to people fleeing the war.

Ruud Lubbers, the head of the agency, called for unrestricted access to border areas to enable the rights of refugees to be respected.

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