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UN relief agencies send more international staff back to Iraq

UN relief agencies send more international staff back to Iraq

United Nations relief agencies reported the return today of more international staff to Iraq after their withdrawal on the eve of hostilities, and forecast an increase in food convoys, but said the security situation remained critical in Baghdad.

"This re-establishment of a permanent presence in Iraq by international staff from the United Nations will be augmented in the days and weeks to come, as we expand our presence in the north, the south and the centre," a spokesman for the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (UNHCOI), David Wimhurst, told the daily briefing in Amman, Jordan, on UN humanitarian activities.

He said 28 international staff crossed the border from Turkey into Northern Iraq today, joining six who crossed over yesterday.

But he said national staff in Baghdad reported that while looting appeared to be decreasing, the security situation remained critical. Many citizens were armed and gunfire could be heard during the day in various parts of the city. Many suburbs remained without electricity and the sanitation crisis continued to grow, he added. Urgent repairs were being carried out on two sewage facilities.

Mr. Wimhurst said that out of the 27 hospitals that were either damaged during the bombing campaign or completely looted, 20 were guarded by civilians and seven by the occupying forces. They had food stocks for the next week or several weeks but none was able to store fresh food. Medical supplies were good for another two weeks, he added.

There were also growing concerns in Baghdad for the plight of children missing from some of the city's institutions, he said. A number were believed to have run away but there were also unconfirmed reports that some girls have been abducted by looters.

As a sign of the still very unstable security situation in Baghdad, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) cited Al-Chawadir public hospital where a quarrel involving members of the armed militia protecting the hospital resulted in the doctors deserting their posts, leaving only a handful of nurses to care for a large number of very sick patients.

"On at least one night this week, gunmen were reported to have engaged in shooting battles inside the wards, forcing terrified patients to cower under their beds," spokesman Simon Ingram said. "Such incidents serve only to underline our repeated call on the de facto authorities to fulfil their obligations under international law to protect civilian populations in areas under their control."

He also cited garbage collection as an urgent concern not just for sanitation but because of accidents to children scavenging in the piles of refuse. "In some appalling instances, child scavengers have uncovered unexploded munitions among the rubbish, with predictably horrifying results," he said.

For its part the World Health Organization (WHO) said funds to run hospitals were quickly dwindling. There was almost no money to pay the staff, do maintenance, or pay for food and other essential services. Staff, now working essentially on a volunteer basis, could no longer even afford the taxi or bus trip across town to get to and from work, spokesperson Fadela Chaib said.

She also appealed urgently to donors, as a matter of "utmost priority," for assistance to speed up reconstruction of the looted central public health laboratory, which would cost millions of dollars.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said that from now on it would have almost daily food convoys from Jordan to Baghdad.

"We need to build up a large stock in the capital as well as in other major urban centres in preparation for food distribution next month," spokesman Khaled Mansour said.