WFP warns of future food shortages in Somalia

The World Food Program warns it could eventually face food shortages if threats of pirate attacks against its relief vessels persist. The WFP is renewing its appeal to Somali authorities to do whatever it takes to make sure these mercy ships gets safely into port. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Over the past week, the World Food Program began distributing food to 122,000 newly displaced people. They are among the nearly 400,000 people who have fled the capital Mogadishu since February 1. That is when fighting erupted between Islamic rebels and Ethiopian troops backing the transitional authority.

Now that relative calm has been restored, WFP says it has free access to all the displaced. Spokeswoman, Christiane Berthiaume, says it has enough food inside the country to continue its distribution.

"But, we need to maintain a flow of food getting into the country because we are taking food from the warehouses to do the distribution and we need to replenish the warehouses. Our project for this year is to feed one million people in Somalia and you have to add to that all these thousands of people that have fled the recent fighting in Mogadishu who are either inside the capital or outside," she said.

On Saturday, a ship chartered by the World Food Program, carrying four thousand tons of food, was attacked by pirates after the cargo was unloaded in the port of Merka, south of Mogadishu. Somali guards repelled the attack. One guard was wounded during the shoot-out and subsequently died.

Although the food made it safely into port, the owner of the ship suspended a delivery of 850 tons of food that was supposed to leave from Mombasa, Kenya to Somalia on Sunday. He said it was too risky.

Berthiaume calls this a heavy blow. She says pirate attacks threaten WFP's humanitarian operation and have to be stopped. "It is vital for us to bring food by sea. Eighty percent of the food aid that we bring into Somalia is by boat, by sea, 20 percent by road. The roads are no good. It is difficult. We do bring food by road. But, we have to cross the border from Kenya. As you know, the border is closed. So, each time we need authorization. All the roads are not secure in Somalia," she said.

The waters off Somalia's coast are considered among the most dangerous in the world. Pirates have hijacked at least six boats this year, three of them in the last week. In 2005, the World Food Program suspended deliveries of food aid by sea for several weeks after two of its chartered boats were hijacked.

Berthiaume says WFP has not suspended food deliveries after this latest pirate attack. But, she says the agency is concerned that it will face difficulties chartering a boat willing to make the dangerous voyage.