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Heads of UN agencies to discuss aid to Iraq amid growing concern over Basra

Heads of UN agencies to discuss aid to Iraq amid growing concern over Basra

As Secretary-General Kofi Annan prepared to chair a top-level meeting of United Nations relief agencies in New York tomorrow on the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, UN spokesmen for the organizations in the region expressed growing alarm today for the southern city of Basra, where the 1.7 million residents have been without full water supplies for four days.

"The situation in Basra is very alarming, very critical and all of us have raised concern about the situation there, especially about the water, which is of very poor quality," Veronique Tareau, spokesperson for the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq (OHCI) told a briefing in Amman, Jordan, on the UN's relief activities. "You have also to bear in mind that the weather in Iraq will become very hot and in that region it can reach 40 degrees centigrade, which means very soon epidemics will spread rapidly because of this situation."

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) joined in the concern over Basra as well as over the plight of children in general caught up in the war. UNICEF spokesman Geoffrey Keele said the agency was working to get vital water tankers into Basra to improve the situation for the city's children.

In a statement in Geneva, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, who will be attending tomorrow's New York summit, declared: "The last few days have raised real concern for the welfare of civilians caught in the conflict, especially children."

Stressing that this was exactly the kind of scenario UNICEF had warned of prior to the war, Ms. Bellamy said: "Electricity has been knocked out, interrupting the water supply, and that puts people at risk of disease from unsafe water."

She urged the parties to the conflict to put more focus on the humanitarian impact of the war. "We're very concerned about reports of deaths and injuries among children and women," she said. "Such losses are tragic, and they are unacceptable. But the truth is the world does not have a very clear picture of the humanitarian impact of the fighting. There is a disturbing lack of focus on the civilian population."

Calling on the parties to abide by their humanitarian obligations under international law and make the safety of children a priority, she said: "I urge them to do all in their power to protect children's lives, their homes, and their well-being."

Also warning that lack of safe water increased disease and death rates, particularly among children, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that as many as 60 per cent of the population of Basra, Iraq's second city, were reported to lack access to clean, safe water.

WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland urged all parties to fully respect the neutrality of medical staff and facilities. "I call on all those involved to avoid any and all attacks directed at health personnel," she said in a statement issued in Geneva.

In northern Iraq, the UN Development Programme, in collaboration with the local authorities started the electrification of Delizyan camp, which is designed for 7,000 internal refugees while the World Food Programme (WFP) reported that general food stocks in northern Iraq seemed to be good, although prices overall were increasing,

The UN High Commissioner for the Refugees (UNHCR) said there had been no substantial movements of Iraqi refugees across neighbouring borders.

Those attending tomorrow's summit are expected to include UNDP Administrator Mark Malloch Brown; WFP Executive Director James T. Morris; Ms. Bellamy of UNICEF, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers. Also scheduled to take part are Kenzo Oshima, the Head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and Benon Sevan, Executive Director of the now-suspended Oil-for-Food programme, which allows Baghdad to use a portion of its petroleum sales to buy relief supplies.