Syria: Rice import snag leaves some Iraqi refugees short

DAMASCUS, 17 November 2008 (IRIN) - The World Food Programme (WFP) has said it is "hopeful" of resolving a Syrian ban on imported rice that has left 30,000 Iraqi refugees facing much reduced food rations.

"We are very hopeful for a positive outcome from the negotiations," a WFP source told IRIN, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations.

Syria prevented the unloading of 8,000 tonnes of rice at Lattakia port on 6 November because officials said the percentage of cracked rice in the Vietnamese shipment was too high to meet national standards.

Around 194,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria are reliant on the distribution of food aid by WFP and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which began in November 2007.

The rice arrived in Lattakia on 1 November and was in the process of being unloaded, transported and stored in warehouses, when port authorities called a halt.

The seizure of the rice comes just days after tension mounted between Syria and Iraq following a US cross-border attack from Iraq on the Syrian town of Abu Kamal, which killed at least seven Syrians.

Port officials, however, insist the rice was impounded for technical reasons, and said its nutritional value was not in question. WFP said the rice meets the international standard of 10 percent cracked rice per load.

Some Iraqi refugees said they had stopped receiving their once every two months ration of 25kg of rice, the bulk of the food aid they receive, and the main staple of their diet. "Iraqi people, we love rice," Shada, a refugee from Baghdad, told IRIN at the UN-run distribution centre in Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus.

The government and WFP are currently in negotiations over the status of the rice. WFP is planning to buy some rice on the local market as an interim measure.

Several thousand tonnes of Indian rice imported by WFP have been sitting at the docks for the past two months. An official told Reuters this rice was "unfit for human consumption". WFP told IRIN the rice had passed laboratory tests and met international standards, though the agency remains sensitive to Syrian concerns.