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UN  Seeking Access to Palestinian Refugee Camps - 2002-04-16

U.N. relief agencies are calling for Israel to allow them access to West Bank towns and Palestinian refugee camps. The U.N. humanitarian base in Geneva, the groups said they are still facing obstacles delivering supplies to Palestinians.

U.N. aid agencies say humanitarian access continues to be a key and crucial problem. The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, managed to deliver three days worth of bread, oil, and water for 200 people Monday in Bethlehem. But most West Bank towns and especially refugee camps have been inaccessible.

"When we do have access, we have access for a very limited amount of time," UNICEF spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte explained. "That means getting in, dropping off the supplies and getting out. We have about three hours when we are lucky enough to have any time at all and the distribution then happens on site," Ms. Belmonte said.

The World Health Organization said its medical personnel have been prevented from reaching and treating wounded Palestinians in Israel's 18 day military incursion into the West Bank. It has expressed concern about the lack of potable water and food and the possible risk of a cholera outbreak.

The U.N. agency aiding Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said it is trying to help survivors of the Jenin camp, the scene of the most intensive recent Israeli-Palestinian fighting. It said it managed to get to one of its clinics on the outskirts of the camp to treat a few wounded people.

But UNRWA spokesman Rene Aquarone said the agency is concern about those refugees caught under the rubble of destroyed buildings. He said heavy equipment is needed to remove them, and rotting corpses, from the ruins.

"There are still thousands of people in the camp that have obviously had no food, water, or sustenance, etc. for quite some time. The Commissioner General in his comments to you some time back has mentioned about the risks of a humanitarian catastrophe and whatnot. I will not repeat that, but none of those fears has subsided," Mr. Aquarone said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it has set up a program for families to report loved ones who are missing. ICRC spokesman Vincent Lusser said the Jenin inhabitants are talking about those who left the camp last week, those arrested, and of the dead.

"Gradually people will come, they will report, and the picture will emerge of how many people are unaccounted for, and then we will deduce from that number the people that we see in detention and gradually the finally numbers will emerge," Mr. Lusser said.

Palestinians say more than 500 people were killed, including women and children; Israel says the number is much less. UNRWA said all Palestinian refugees are registered so an exact figure will be reached for those missing.