May 5, 2011 / 6:20 PM / in 7 years

INTERVIEW-Libyan food supplies could run out in weeks - WFP

* U.N. food aid body says Libya only has food for 6-8 weeks

* WFP warns of potential for full-scale humanitarian crisis

* Cost of getting aid to Libya has “risen exponentially”

By Charlie Dunmore

BRUSSELS, May 5 (Reuters) - Libya’s food supplies could run out within six to eight weeks unless plans are put in place to avoid a full-scale humanitarian crisis, the head of the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday.

Supply concerns are particularly acute in the rebel-held east of the country, where the interim authorities are struggling to buy and distribute food, WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said in an interview.

“The challenge in Libya is that this is a centrally controlled food system that was run by the government, and it’s not being restocked now. That whole system could run out of food in six to eight weeks,” Sheeran told Reuters in Brussels.

“If we do not address the larger gaps in the food system in Libya -- particularly eastern Libya -- we’ll have to envision a fairly massive humanitarian operation.”

Sheeran said the WFP was involved in talks with officials at a meeting of the “contact group” on Libya in Rome on Thursday. She hinted that the WFP was ready to expand its supply and distribution of food in the north African country, whose leader Muammar Gaddafi is trying to crush an uprising against his 41-year rule.

”We have been talking to experts in eastern Libya about how we can help fill some of the gaps, or work with them to fill the gaps so they can run their own system ... But right now they’re unable to place the tenders to even bring the food in.

“The World Food Programme in the past in similar types of situations has been able to help nations procure food, deliver food, develop the procurement relationships, and even on behalf of the nation to provide procurement services,” she said.

SUPPLY DIFFICULTIES

Food imports to eastern Libya have been hit by the inability of the rebels’ interim national council to establish lines of credit with foreign traders.

On Wednesday, an aid ship was shelled while rescuing stranded migrant workers from the besieged Libyan port of Misrata. Sheeran said such incidents had led to an “exponential rise” in the cost of getting aid to the country.

“It’s difficult and it’s costly, and we need to continue to do things like open the land corridors which we have opened both through the east and the west.”

The WFP is working with the Libyan Red Crescent aid organisation to move food aid throughout the country from at least 13 distribution points, though Sheeran said the security situation had prevented supplies from reaching all areas.

“It’s touch and go. It depends on the day, and again we’re seeing that this is being done at great risk to the humanitarian workers.” (Editing by David Brunnstrom and Mark Trevelyan)

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