UN stockpiles food near Iraq, awaits refugee influx

By David Brough

ROME, (Reuters) - The United Nations food aid agency scrambled on Saturday to move food to warehouses near the border with Iraq to prepare for the possible arrival of thousands of refugees fleeing the U.S.-led invasion.

The collapse of the U.N.-backed oil-for-food programme after the United Nations ordered its international staff to leave Iraq on Monday has denied fresh food supplies to 60 percent of the country's 25 million people.

"We are continuing our preparations, and we may have to assist about two million Iraqis in an initial phase," Trevor Rowe, chief spokesman of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), the world's biggest food aid agency, told Reuters.

In Jordan, the WFP was erecting a portable warehouse at Al-Ruwayshid near the border with Iraq on Saturday, Rowe said.

He said it would store up to 400 tonnes of food and added that around five tonnes of high-energy biscuits were already there, ready for handing out by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

In Syria, WFP has stockpiled basic food rations to feed 20,000 potential refugees or for delivery to Iraq, Rowe said.

In Kuwait, the agency was procuring bread that could be used to feed some 200,000 people over 10 days.

In Turkey, WFP planned to send some 50 tonnes of high-energy biscuits to Silope in the southeast over the next few days.

Up to half a million Iraqis fled cities in the northern Kurdish areas ahead of the invasion, moving their families to outlying villages, aid agencies said on Saturday.

The city of Dohuk near Turkey is "almost depopulated", and people have also poured out of the key oil hub of Kirkuk, the U.N. Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq said.

The U.N. estimated there were 350,000 to 450,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the north, and movements continued.

In Amman, WFP officials said food deliveries in Iraq would begin as soon as it was safe for staff to work in the country.

"It's too early to make a judgement. We believe people have enough food to sustain them until the end of April," spokesman Khaled Mansour said.

Rowe said he was not aware of imminent plans to move food aid into Iraq via the southern port of Umm-Qasr, where U.S. marines still faced pockets of resistance on Saturday, a day after Washington said it had won control.

British military leaders said aid would start moving into Iraq through Umm Qasr as soon as mine-sweeping was completed.

As well as WFP, the United States and Australia were preparing aid shipments.

Washington has said it would release 600,000 tonnes of U.S. wheat from state grain reserves for the Iraqi relief effort.

The U.S. Agriculture Department said this week that 200,000 tonnes of grain would be sent immediately.

Australia, traditionally Iraq's major wheat supplier, is also shipping wheat. On Friday, the government committed 100,000 tonnes of wheat through its AusAid programme.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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