Press conference by Emergency Relief Coordinator on humanitarian situation in Somalia

Calling the recent violence in Mogadishu "some of the worst that's been seen in that city for the last 16 years", John Holmes, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the country's Transitional Federal Government must give humanitarian aid workers access to the capital, so they could distribute desperately needed food and water to the estimated 320,000 people forced to flee the fighting -- about one-third of the country's population.

He told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference that insecurity, as well as instances of poor cooperation from the Transitional Federal Government, meant that United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations were unable to gain access to those who had fled the capital, or even to the emergency supplies warehoused in Mogadishu. Aid groups had been denied access to the K50 and Merka airports around Mogadishu, and assistance was reaching only an estimated 60,000 of those displaced. Many of them were women, children and elderly persons reportedly forced to "rent" space under trees for shelter.

The World Food Programme (WFP) had been prevented from distributing food in Afgoye to 32,000 people because the relevant authorities had not given the necessary clearance, he said. Aid workers also faced difficulty getting through checkpoints. "I hope that position is now changing," Mr. Holmes said, adding that he had met with Government authorities on Monday. "They have assured us of their full support for humanitarian access and humanitarian workers, but that remains to be seen, whether it's translated into practice."

He said more than 321,000 civilians had fled Mogadishu since 1 February, as fighting between Government forces and insurgents -- including indiscriminate artillery fire and shelling of residential areas -- wreaked havoc on the capital. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 1,000 wounded people had been admitted to Mogadishu's two main hospitals in the first three months of 2007, including almost 200 this past weekend. Exacerbating the problem was a large-scale outbreak of acute watery diarrhoea, and in some instances, cholera in south and central Somalia.

Mr. Holmes, who had briefed the Security Council on the situation earlier in the day, said the international community had delivered approximately one third of the $262 million sought by the consolidated appeal for Somalia for displaced civilians. But more funds were needed, not only for food and water, but also for health care and protection, which had received little funding thus far. The Emergency Relief Coordinator called on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law.

He noted that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had urged an immediate ceasefire on the ground, while the Security Council sought to beef up the African Union peacekeeping presence in Somalia to 6,000 troops, up from the approximately 1,000 Ugandan soldiers already monitoring the situation.

Responding to a question about plans for the possible evacuation of civilians to safe havens in Yemen, or other practical applications under the "responsibility to protect" civilians caught in the crossfire, he reaffirmed that Governments had retained the primary responsibility to ensure the protection of civilian populations. The humanitarian priority was to gain access to those in need, in order to deliver assistance to them.

For information media - not an official record