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Sahel braces for potentially deadly hungry season

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Fran Blandy DAKAR, Senegal

Sahel states are bracing for a long, potentially deadly hungry season, many weakened by the return of people from Libya who are unemployed, armed and creating fresh strife in already-vulnerable countries.

Crops have failed across a massive swathe of eight countries after late and erratic rains in 2011, and aid agencies have raised the alarm of a food crisis bigger than that which left millions hungry in 2010.

However this semi-arid belt running across Africa, separating Sahara from savannah, has had several new shocks which are aggravating the crisis.

As the rains dried up, so too did remittances from oil-rich Libya where many in this zone went to work, explains Grant Leaity, regional chief of emergency for the United Nations children's agency Unicef.

"The money stopped, the people came back, with a significant amount of weapons," Leaity told a press briefing on Friday, adding that Niger and Malian communities had been hardest hit by the fall in remittances.

Adding to Mali's woes, Tuareg -- nomadic desert tribesman -- who returned from fighting for Moamer Kadhafi have taken up a decades-old battle for control of the north of the country.

Fighting since mid-January has sent over 20 000 refugees into neighbouring states.

'Aggravating factor'

"It's a clear aggravating factor. We have to find solutions, these guys are not going back to Libya," said Leaity.

Niger, which was hard hit by droughts in 2005 and 2010, saw the return of some 220 000 migrants from Libya, and is now hosting some 12 000 refugees from Mali with another 700 arriving daily, said Unicef.