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US Food Aid Distributed through WFP Transits Across Libyan Desert

For the first time, thousands of tons of American food aid are being taken by the World Food Program, across the desert in Libya, to 200,000 refugees in eastern Chad . The food assistance includes almost all the commodities needed for their daily diet.

Convoys of 40 trucks at a time, carrying American food aid, are being driven past the town, Al Kufra, in southeastern Libya, on their way to ten camps in Chad. They are part of a delivery of 6,540 tons of U.S. food aid destined to Sudanese refugees who have fled the fighting in the Darfur area.

It is the first time United States' food assistance is traveling along a recently opened 2,800 kilometer humanitarian corridor, which crosses the Libyan portion of the Sahara Desert. In August, Libyan authorities reached an agreement with the United Nations World Food Program to allow use of the ancient trading route.

This week, the American ambassador to U.N. agencies for Food and Agriculture, Tony Hall traveled to Al Kufra to check on the operation. He spoke to journalists, as he stood in front of the trucks laden with boxes of food donated by the American government.

"It's great," he said. "This is kind of a historic humanitarian event, to be taking tremendous amounts of food, of American food through the World Food Program, through the Libyan deserts to feed hundreds of thousands of starving people."

Ambassador Hall says this cooperation for humanitarian purposes between the U-S and Libyan governments is another indication of improving relations between the two countries.

Darfur has been in the grip of a conflict since February, 2003, after rebels launched an armed insurrection to protest at what they allege is the political and economic marginalization of black Africans by the Sudanese Arab-led government. As a result nearly one-point-seven million Sudanese have been displaced.

Ambassador Hall says the American donation will go a long way in relieving the suffering of people who have been forced out of their homes and out of their country.

"This is a humanitarian mission," he said. "It will serve hundreds of thousands of people. It will keep them alive. The Libyan government has provided the access and the World Food Program is doing the delivery and the America taxpayers have provided the food."

The American food assistance was shipped from New Orleans and arrived in the Northern Libyan port, Benghazi, in early November. It takes the trucks two to three weeks to reach their destination, in eastern Chad.

The arrival of the food trucks is particularly welcome in the area which suffered a poor harvest this year. Scarce resources have already led to a tension build up between the refugees and the local population.

Before the summer, most of the aid was being shipped inland from Port Sudan on the Red Sea. But, when the scale of the need in eastern Chad became apparent, earlier this year, the WFP looked into other ways of getting food to the camps.

The possibility of delivering food through Libya was considered. The World Food Program discussed this with Ambassador Hall, who approached the Libyan ambassador to Rome. The WFP's Markus Prior says these and other negotiations led to the opening of the corridor.

"After discussions with the Libyan government, an agreement was signed by which they would allow us to use the corridor," he explained. "It's a substantial gain for us, not least because its economically more feasible, cheaper to get food from Benghazi into Chad than it is via other routes."

The agreement between the WFP and the Libyan government has now been signed, not only to provide assistance to Darfur but also to other African regions, should the need arise. Tripoli has made clear it is prepared to sign similar agreements with other organizations or governments, to provide humanitarian assistance.

Al Kufra Mayor Abdurahim Hweesh watched as the trucks drove by and spoke proudly of how his town is helping facilitate the crossing.

"Yes, it was actually a very nice feeling that we are seeing the trucks loaded with foods and humanitarian aid coming from America and European countries and going to our brothers in Darfur, in Sudan," he said.

Al Kufra has a population of 62-thousand, mostly involved in agriculture. The WFP is in the process of establishing an office in the town. The mayor says the Libyans will continue to provide all the necessary assistance for other humanitarian aid that will be coming down their way.

The World Food Program believes the food aid needs in Darfur and in the camps in eastern Chad will increase in 2005. The organization says lack of security, drought and the probable failure to plant and harvest in Sudan are some of the reasons which indicate that the humanitarian situation will require greater assistance, next year.