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Eritrea: Thousands may starve, WFP warns

NAIROBI, 20 Dec 2002 (IRIN) - The UN's World Food Programme on Friday warned there would not be enough food supplies to care for about one million Eritreans in the coming months.

In a statement, Patrick Buckley - the WFP country representative for Eritrea - said the prospect of thousands starving was a "stark reality".

"Ships carrying food aid from abroad take months to arrive," he stated. "Considering the magnitude of the crisis at hand, each day is critical."

WFP said it had only received US $9 million of food and cash contributions against a request last month for US $105 million. "Unless firm donations are urgently made within the next few weeks, there will be a break in supply from April onwards," the statement warned.

Earlier this week, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned that 2.8 million Eritreans - over half the population - were experiencing pre-famine conditions due to the devastating drought currently gripping the country. It a said fifth of the population was immediately confronting food shortages which were leading to critical levels of malnutrition among children.

WFP said that with the country just emerging from a destructive border war with Ethiopia, the poor agricultural season could not have come at a worse time.

"The delayed rains have seriously affected the pastoralist community," it pointed out. "Reports indicate that the number of livestock - mainly goats, sheep and cattle - has diminished in some districts by up to 20 percent from 2001."

"Nothing less that immediate and sufficient international response will prevent destitution and the loss of life of thousands of Eritreans," WFP stressed.