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WFP air link to refugees in Chad threatened with closure

N'DJAMENA - The United Nations World Food Programme said today that it will be forced to halt its humanitarian air service from N'djamena to eastern Chad next month - at the height of the rainy season when the link is needed most - unless new funding is urgently secured.

If the aircraft is grounded, aid workers will have no way of reaching many of the more than 190,000 Sudanese refugees, who lost virtually everything when they fled attacks in the Darfur region of western Sudan. In this vast, desolate part of eastern Chad, the refugees depend on aid to survive.

"This air service is the only link to the remote sites where desperate refugees are gathering in their tens of thousands," said WFP Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa Arnold Vercken. "Suspension of this service would mean the end of a fragile lifeline."

The 19-seat Beechcraft aircraft began operating in February this year and provides aid workers with safe and rapid access to refugee sites about 1,000 kilometres from the Chadian capital N'djamena. It also regularly transports high-protein biscuits, medicines and other critical relief supplies.

On Chad's treacherous roads, the trip by land from the capital can take up to two days, and there is virtually no secure accommodation along the route. The rainy season is just starting, but when the rains are underway in earnest, the movement of staff and supplies by road will come to a virtual standstill.

Without new funding, WFP said it would be forced to suspend the air service in late July - just at the height of the rainy season.

According to the UN refugee agency, some 193,000 Sudanese men, women and children have so far fled across the border into Chad to escape violence. About 106,000 have been relocated to eight refugee camps. The UNHCR is working to establish new camps for the continuing influx.

The aircraft travels from N'djamena to eastern Chad and back at least four times per week. The service is free of charge for humanitarian workers and UN staff.

To date, Norway (US$297,000), France (US$150,000) and Switzerland (US$105,000) have contributed to the air operation. But even with other funding sources taken into account, the operation has received less than half of the US$1.8 million that it will cost WFP to keep it running until December 2004.

For its emergency operation in eastern Chad this year, WFP requires US$30.5 million to feed 192,500 beneficiaries - 180,000 refugees and 12,500 affected local residents. To date, the agency has received only US$14.1 million, leaving a shortfall of 54 percent.

WFP estimates that it needs about 31,000 tonnes of food for eastern Chad through 2004.

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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