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Libya Needs Long-Term Humanitarian Assistance, Aid Groups Say

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Mana Rabiee

As fighting continues in Libya between rebels and forces loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi, ordinary citizens are caught in the middle. Aid groups say the humanitarian situation in Libya has stabilized to a degree in recent weeks, but that entire cities and towns remain at risk for reliable food supplies and other basic services.  Relief agencies are looking to the long term in assessing Libya's humanitarian needs.

At the Islamic Relief USA call center just outside of Washington, the staff takes donations of humanitarian aid money for the Middle East over the telephone.  

The non-profit aid group operates a dozen food-distribution points along the Tunisian border, where Libyan families and foreign migrants have gathered in refugee camps.

Food needed

The group's Libyan-American spokesperson Asma Yousef has family in Benghazi, and recently visited some of the refugee camps in Tunisia.  She says the most urgent need for Libyans is among civilians still inside the country who are cut off from aid agencies.

"The main issue for Libyan cities right now is lack of food in areas that are surrounded or secluded or isolated from the outside world," noted Yousef.   

The cities most at risk, says Yousef, are in the Western Mountain region where fighting continues.  

Five months into the war, aid agencies say few civilians remain on the frontlines where the worst of the fighting is taking place.  But the crisis is creating a toll even beyond the armed conflict.

In Misrata, Libya's third largest city, a U.N. joint mission found the majority of people there are unable to buy enough food.  The mission said there is a shortage of supplies, little available cash and rising prices.

Cause for concern

Mark Bartolini directs the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at USAID.  The American government-funded relief agency has distributed nearly $80 million in food, medical and other humanitarian assistance inside Libya since the conflict began.

"Obviously there is still a lot of suffering," Bartolini noted.  "The needs have stabilized but it could go in any direction so we're obviously concerned."

One immediate concern is that the humanitarian crisis in Libya could worsen if the fighting escalates into the capital, Tripoli.

"Tripoli, we've been hearing reports about people having to wait in long lines at gas stations, lack of basic food necessities," Yousef added.

Long-term problems

There are long-term issues to worry about as well.  Bartolini says once the fighting is over, aid groups will have to make sure the institutions to provide basic services are in place.

"People who have been out in the frontlines, fighting - they're going to need jobs. Those are the kinds of things that can tear societies apart in the aftermath of a conflict," Bartolini said.

Just recently, the international community formally recognized the Libyan opposition as the country's "legitimate authority." That means potentially billions of dollars in frozen assets could be released to the opposition for humanitarian and other assistance.

But until that money is actually released, there will still be civilian needs to address. Islamic Relief USA says it has budgeted to continue providing aid through December.

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