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Last Updated:  Thursday, 27 March, 2003, 09:57 GMT
Convoy hijacked in aid 'disaster'

By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online, Kuwait City

The much heralded operation to distribute humanitarian aid to the people of the Iraqi border town of Safwan on Wednesday has been a "disaster", according to the vice chairman of the Kuwaiti Red Crescent - the organisation which despatched the lorry convoy of food parcels.

Dr Hilal Al-Sayer told BBC News Online that the tens of thousands of prepared meals and ration kits of rice, oil, sugar and cereals destined for farms just north of the Iraqi border, had instead been hijacked soon after leaving Kuwait.

"That aid didn't get to the farms where the women and children are, our people lost control and young Iraqi men began emptying the trucks," he said.

Iraqis struggle for aid packages in Safwan
There have been chaotic scenes in the streets of Safwan

"It went to the well, young and healthy."

Mr Al-Sayer says British troops advised staff from the Red Crescent (the local equivalent of the Red Cross) to abandon almost all their lorries to the crowd, since it was considered too dangerous to intervene to save the estimated 45,000 meal packs.


"We didn't expect this sort of aggression. One of our workers phoned me to say that he had been hit on the head as these people threw the boxes from the trucks.

"This desperation shows the poverty in which these people have lived," said Mr Al-Sayer.

Kuwaiti Red Crescent convoys have been trying to cross over into the areas of Iraq occupied by US-led forces for several days, but have been delayed because of security fears.

Two Iraqi men push a trolley loaded with aid supplies
The aid delivery became a free-for-all, say agencies
The arrival of aid in Safwan was heralded by some as a sign that Washington and London were making good on promises to feed the Iraqi people.

However, only two lorry loads of aid reached the farms as intended, where Mr Al-Sayer says it was handed out "very nicely" to families.

Mr Al-Sayer says he hopes the chaotic scenes of Wednesday will not be repeated again.

"The aid was there, but not the organisation. We will do better next time."

The border area around Safwan and Umm Qasr - where the arrival of a British army water tanker on Wednesday also prompted ugly scenes - is only very sparsely populated.

'Identify families'

If aid proves difficult to deliver in this region, it raises questions about how easy it will be to feed the populations of larger towns and cities.

"We will get it right in Safwan, but Basra will be a different kettle of fish for us," said Mr Al-Sayer.

Soldier speaks to Iraqi civilians

Other aid agencies ready in the region say Wednesday's Safwan convoy has "raised some concerns".

Eileen Burke from Save The Children says her organisation carefully assesses local needs and sets up a distribution network before sending in any aid.

"We identify the families most in need, so that we can target them with the aid.

'Second-hand reports'

"We then make sure it goes to the right people and that they do take it home to their families," she told BBC News Online.

The fighting in southern Iraq has seen most aid workers flee the country, meaning there is little reliable information about the needs of the Iraqi people and what supplies will be needed to help them, says Mercy Corp's Cassandra Nelson.

"We're relying on second-hand reports."

Iraqis are reliant on aid. Before the war, the UN was bringing 3,500 tonnes of aid into Umm Qasr's port every day.

The fighting has seen this UN operation shut down and the port is yet to reopen. Reports also suggest Safwan is no longer secure enough for aid to be sent there.

"Security is our biggest concern. Securing the area for our aid should be the military's number one priority," said Ms Nelson.

Several aid agencies say they are unwilling to send in lorries escorted by US-led forces, for fear this will destroy their impartiality and neutrality in the conflict.

However, it is still too dangerous to send unarmed convoys over the border.

"There are reports of looting and lawlessness," says Ms Nelson.

"If it is this bad just over the border, I can't imagine what it is like heading deeper into Iraq."

The BBC's Hilary Andersson
"Getting aid to people who need it is going to be a nightmare"

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