Sri Lanka

UN warns Sri Lanka food aid running out, conditional

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By Simon Gardner

COLOMBO, May 18 (Reuters) - The U.N. World Food Programme warned on Friday its food aid for Sri Lanka would run out within weeks, and slapped conditions on some of it, amid donor concerns over fresh conflict between the state and Tamil Tigers.

Visiting World Food Programme Asia Regional Director Anthony Banbury said donors were worried about the two sides in the conflict diverting aid away from one another, while the United Nations is concerned about reports of forced resettlement of displaced people by the government.

He told a media briefing the WFP needed to find $10.7 million in additional aid over the next six months, with existing aid expected to last only until mid-June.

"It is absolutely essential if we're to get those resources and if we're to help the people in need... to ensure that food and other humanitarian assistance is not being diverted from its intended purposes," Banbury said.

"Donors we were just meeting with were asking questions: How do you know your food aid is going to the intended beneficiaries? How do you know it's not being stolen by some of the parties, diverted to the military. These are very legitimate concerns for donors."

Banbury's visit comes as the government has started to resettle the first of around 100,000 displaced people living in camps in the restive eastern district of Batticaloa to areas captured from Tamil Tiger rebels in recent months.

But aid workers are wary of reports of forced returns during a similar resettlement programme further north earlier this year, and worry it could be repeated.

Banbury said the island's minister of resettlement had asked WFP to provide 3 months' worth of food aid for all returnees.

"The WFP is in principle prepared to provide that assistance as requested by the government. However, our provision of assistance will be conditional on the voluntary nature of the returns," he said.

"We will not provide assistance to anyone who is forced to return against their will, nor will we provide assistance to people who are not part of a formal UNHCR approved return process."

The World Food Programme says around 400,000 people either displaced or affected by the island's protracted conflict -- which has killed nearly 70,000 people since 1983 and displaced more than 500,000 people -- need food aid.

Britain suspended around $3 million of debt relief aid to the government earlier this month, citing human rights and defence spending concerns. The United States followed suit last week, announcing it had suspended an aid project given "the security situation and the human rights situation".

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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