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UN relief chief sounds alarm about crises in Ethiopia, Darfur and Somalia

6 December 2007 The grave humanitarian conditions in south-eastern Ethiopia, the Darfur region of Sudan and Somalia could substantially worsen in the months ahead, the top United Nations relief official told the Security Council today as he briefed members on his recent visit to Africa.

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said the situations in the three countries “are a reflection of the huge political and security challenges which this region now faces” and he urged the international community to ensure it steps up to protect the welfare of civilians.

In Ethiopia’s impoverished Somali region, where the conflict between Government forces and the Ogaden National Liberation Front has intensified this year, he noted that fears are growing that up to 4.5 million people could soon face famine-like conditions.

“There are strong reasons to believe such a catastrophe could occur in the next few months if all the necessary action to avert it is not taken,” Mr. Holmes said, adding that insecurity and Government restrictions are making it difficult for aid workers to even reach those in need.

UN relief agencies estimate that about 950,000 people in the Somali region will need about 53,000 tons of food aid for the next three months, but the continuing insecurity has meant that only about 9,000 tons has been dispatched so far to district capitals.

“A poor recent rainy season and evidence of worrying health and nutrition situations” are exacerbating the crisis, said Mr. Holmes, who called for full humanitarian access to the region during talks with Ethiopian leaders.

“The commitments of the Ethiopian Government, at the most senior level, to do everything necessary to make sure there is no famine give me a measure of hope. But I repeat that, if all the steps I have talked about are not taken, a disaster could unfold with frightening speed.”

In war-wracked Darfur in western Sudan, where more than 200,000 people have been killed since fighting erupted between rebels, Government forces and allied militia in 2003, Mr. Holmes said aid operations have also become increasingly fragile because of the violence, including “unprecedented levels” of attacks targeted at aid workers.

“Since the start of the year, 128 humanitarian vehicles have been hijacked, 118 staff temporarily taken hostage, more than 59 humanitarian personnel physically or sexually assaulted, and 74 convoys ambushed and looted. Tragically, 12 relief workers have been killed.”

Mr. Holmes, who is also UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the Council that despite some improvements this year the Sudanese authorities continue to provide bureaucratic obstacles to relief agencies conducting their work, such as in issuing entry visas and releasing equipment from customs.

He stressed that the return or resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Darfur must be voluntary and only happen after consultations with local communities.

“The necessary conditions for large-scale returns across Darfur do not yet exist, in my view and in the view of most outside observers, and to encourage return without security would endanger the lives of those who have already suffered too much.”

Turning to Somalia, Mr. Holmes said he witnessed first-hand the many rudimentary IDP camps that have been emerging along roadsides as hundreds of thousands of residents of Mogadishu flee deadly violence in the capital.

“All the people I spoke to in the camps had fled the violence and intimidation that have made life in Mogadishu so unliveable. Some spoke of snipers fuelling panic in the streets. Many left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

The Under-Secretary-General paid tribute to the courage of relief workers who continue to provide humanitarian support despite the personal dangers in a country that has not had a functioning national government since 1991.

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has described the humanitarian crisis, security and political reconciliation as its top three priorities, and Mr. Holmes today called for action on those pledges.

He also urged donors to boost their support of aid efforts and on the wider world to step up pressure on a political resolution to the conflict between the TFG and the Islamists.

“The international community has the responsibility not to abandon the Somali people to their fate but to help all concerned to find a way out of the traps they find themselves in. There is no simple solution, certainly not a military one.”

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