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Food distribution freeze looms over displaced Azerbaijanis

Baku The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) warned today that due to a nearly 50 percent shortfall in resources, food distribution for 140,000 Azerbaijanis displaced by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict a decade ago, will come to a complete halt starting January.

"We have tried everything, even halving the rations last month, but we just don't have enough food stocks left to go around. Most of the displaced are so poor they don't have the means to buy food. It's a dreadful situation, especially in winter, when temperatures drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius [-4 Fahrenheit]," said Rahman Chowdhury, WFP's Country Director in Azerbaijan.

WFP is facing a US$10 million shortfall, out of a total of US$21 million, for the three-year humanitarian operation, which started in January 2003.

"It's tragic that 75 percent of WFP's beneficiaries are women and children, who are extremely food insecure. A large number of them continue to live in makeshift shelters like railway cars and dugouts," he added, expressing concern that the suspension of food rations will seriously undermine the already precarious nutritional status of the displaced.

Only WFP's school feeding program, that supplies food to 5,300 primary school children, will continue, albeit on a limited scale; one essential ingredient of the take-home rations provided to school children five days a week, is vitamin fortified wheat soya blend, whose stocks will also run out in January.

"The nutrition of these children has improved considerably in recent months. But all that will be lost if we do not continue this program," said Chowdhury.

Most of the displaced live in remote areas of western Azerbaijan, such as Agjabedi and Imishli regions, where employment possibilities are extremely limited.

Since 1994, WFP has been pivotal in assisting hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis displaced by the armed conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. More than 600,000 Azerbaijanis fled the region now occupied by Armenia to other parts of Azerbaijan.

"Until peace comes to this region, the people affected by this conflict will be living under very difficult circumstances and soon we will no longer be able to help them," lamented Chowdhury.

At the end of January, WFP will issue the results of its first food security and nutrition survey on the displaced population of Azerbaijan. The study will provide key information on the needs of the population, and will assist WFP in formulating its strategy beyond 2005.

The donors to WFP's Azerbaijan operation include the United States (US$6.3 million), Sweden (US$2 million), Japan (US$1 million), Netherlands (US$1 million), Denmark (US$261,000), Norway (US$162,000), Switzerland (US$148,000) and Luxembourg (US$119,000).

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency: in 2003 we gave food aid to a record 104 million people in 81 countries, including 56 million hungry children.

WFP Global School Feeding Campaign For just 19 US cents a day, you can help WFP give children in poor countries a healthy meal at school -- a gift of hope for a brighter future.

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