Libya's food chain at risk of collapse: UN agency

GENEVA, Feb 25, 2011 (AFP) - The UN's World Food Programme warned on Friday that Libya's food supply chain was "at risk of collapsing", as aid agencies raised fears that many people were trapped inside the country in worsening conditions.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched an appeal for six million Swiss francs (6.4 million dollars, 4.7 million euros) for medical assistance as the deadly clashes reportedly continued in western Libya.

"The information we have indicates that the humantarian situation in Libya is getting worse by the hour," said ICRC Deputy Director of Operations Dominik Stillhart.

WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella told journalists: "Libya is a net food importer and the food supply chain is at risk of collapsing," as imports were not reaching ports and distribution around the country was reportedly hampered by violence.

"They do have limited production of wheat, barley and olives mainly in a small area around Benghazi, but that is not enough to meet the population's needs," she added.

While the WFP was not delivering food aid in Libya before the turmoil, a supply corridor from the northeastern coastal city of Benghazi across the desert for 260,000 people in Chad was halted after ships were diverted because of the turmoil in Libya.

Casella also cited accounts of food shortages from people fleeing Libya, echoing claims by Libyan exiles earlier this week who spoke to people inside the country.

Meanwhile, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it feared that many people who wanted to leave, especially Libyans, were trapped.

"We are concerned that there are large numbers of people who would like to flee but who are trapped," said UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, following reports from foreign workers who had fled.

Fleming said there had been a very small number of Libyan refugees who mainly fled to Tunisia from villages near the border.

"We're getting accounts from people coming over that the journey is terrifying, that they're being harassed on the way, they are being robbed of all their possessions, they're coming with just the clothes off their backs," she explained.

"Libyans in particular are being hindered, particularly if you are coming from further inside the country" she told journalists.

About 40,000 to 50,000 people, overwhelmingly migrant workers, have fled to neighbouring Tunisia, Egypt and Niger, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Casella warned that if people and vehicles couldn't move around Libya "then it affects the ability to supply the country".

The WFP was drawing up contingency plans to provide food inside Libya "if and when the security situation allows," she added.

The ICRC has said it is trying to get clearance to send medical teams into the country.

"We are seriously concerned about the growing number of people who are fleeing their homes in search of security and who are seeking to cross the border," said Stillhart.

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