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Press Conference by Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs on Libya, 28 February 2011

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

The United Nations top humanitarian official told reporters today that while the world body’s marquee relief agencies were ramping up activities in the eastern part of Libya and along the country’s southern and western borders, she was very concerned that fighting in and around Tripoli was preventing a tangible assessment of the humanitarian needs there.

“Our primary concern is getting access to Tripoli and surrounding areas where the situation is precarious,” Valarie Amos, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said today at a Headquarters press conference. “We need to have a proper sense of what the needs are […] even as we are seeing terrible pictures on our television screens of what is happening as people are fleeing,” she said, expressing concern about shortages of food, water and medical supplies in the Libyan capital where anti-Government protestors were locked in deadly struggle against forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Al-Qadhafi.

With all United Nations staff having been evacuated from Tripoli, solid information on the ground was scarce, she said, adding that while there was also no clear information about the movement of the population inside Libya, there were “alarming” reports that desperate people inside the capital were being prevented from fleeing the violence. Overall, agencies were reporting that the death toll ranged from hundreds to thousands, and she appealed to all parties to refrain from violence against civilians.

Ms. Amos, who is also the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that an inter-agency assessment had been completed on Sunday, and while it appeared that Benghazi and other areas in the east of Libya were returning to “some sense of normalcy”, the world body’s humanitarian arm “is taking all measures to prepare for any eventuality”. Relief work was proceeding smoothly along Libya’s border with Egypt, with the United Nations and other agencies providing medical care, food and other aid.

She went on to say that although the numbers could not be confirmed, some 61,000 people were believed to have crossed into Egypt since the beginning of the crisis, close to 40,000 into Tunisia, and thus far, about 1,000 into Niger. The majority of those that had fled to Tunisia were believed to be Tunisian migrant workers, and the Tunisian Government had asked for assistance for non-Tunisian nationals. Overall, humanitarian efforts at the main border crossings was said to be orderly and well organized, and while she appealed to Libya’s neighbours to keep their borders open, she praised the “incredible generosity” of Governments and individuals thus far.

Among other United Nations-led activities, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was rapidly deploying a team to Cairo to reinforce the Resident Coordinator in Tripoli and immediately put in place mechanisms for information management, reporting and public information. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had deployed teams to Egypt and Tunisia to assist people coming across the borders. UNHCR had also been working with the Tunisian Government to establish a camp, flying in 10,000 tents and other non-food items and materials that had arrived over the weekend.

She said the World Health Organization (WHO) had described the health situation inside Libya as “precarious”, and so far, trauma and surgical kits had been sent. That agency had also reached Benghazi with medical supplies. The World Food Programme (WFP) was despatching staff to the Egyptian and Tunisian borders to assess needs and carry out contingency planning for delivering food assistance to those affected by the violence inside Libya.

“First-hand accounts from people arriving at the borders mention shortages of food, petrol and medical supplies,” she said, adding that Libya depended on food imports and could suffer a potential disruption in its food supply chain due to the ongoing violence and instability. The United Nations also remained concerned about the situation of migrant workers form sub-Saharan African countries, so far, unable to leave Libya.

Responding to questions, Ms Amos said that one of the things the civilian population wanted most was a degree of security. “They are fleeing an extremely volatile and insecure situation. What you have is different parts of the country now controlled by different elements,” she said citing reports of perhaps 1,000 deaths in Tripoli alone. “We need to better understand what is going on inside the country and this is one of the things that we are going to try and resolve in the next day or so,” she said.

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