INTERVIEW - Food running out in Gaddafi-held Libya

TRIPOLI Tue May 31, 2011 8:59pm IST

Libyans gather to receive food distributed by a local resident in Ajdabiyah March 27, 2011.      REUTERS/Suhaib Salem/Files

Libyans gather to receive food distributed by a local resident in Ajdabiyah March 27, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem/Files

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Stocks of some foodstuffs are likely to last only weeks in parts of Libya under control of Muammar Gaddafi, creating a "time bomb" for the population, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Libya said on Tuesday.

Panos Moumtzis, who coordinates U.N. relief efforts for the conflict, said he had been given information by the Libyan government that showed it was using up stocks of food and medicine, which could not be replenished because of sanctions.

"The food, and the medical supplies, is a little bit like a time bomb. At the moment it's under control and it's okay. But if this goes on for quite some time, this will become a major issue," he told Reuters in Tripoli.

In peacetime, Libya exported about 1.8 million barrels of oil per day, earning cash which the government used to buy food that it distributed to the population at heavily subsidised prices. That trade has ceased as a result of sanctions.

"They have given us some information on their stocks available," Moumtzis said. "For some food commodities it's a matter of weeks, others perhaps a matter of months. What is clear is that this cannot continue for a very long time."

"At the moment it's under control, I don't think there's any famine, malnutrition. But the longer the conflict lasts, the more the food stocks supplies are going to be depleted, and it's a matter of weeks before the country reaches a critical situation," he added.

"In particular for imported foodstuffs, what we understand is that whatever runs out of the shelves of shops, this time it will not be replenished."

The manager of Tripoli's commercial port said supplies were getting in and the port was open for business.

"Those who say Libya has no food, no supplies, our ports are open. We are here at Tripoli port daily, 24 hours, service ongoing. I invite all exporters sending in goods. There are no more tariffs. Tariffs are zero percent," Mohamed Ahmed Rashed said on Libyan state television.

ANGER

NATO countries have been bombing Libya for more than two months and say they will not stop until the Libyan leader steps down. They have made clear they hope discontent arising from the impact of sanctions will finally topple him.

There is already evidence of public anger in Gaddafi-held areas over fuel shortages, with petrol queues stretching for miles and motorists lining up for days, Moumtzis said.

"There is a growing anger within the population for the fact that normal life has been disrupted or slowed down because of a lack of fuel in particular," he said.

Moumtzis said the supply situation was better in the eastern parts of the country under rebel control, where there were no shortages of fuel.

The United Nations was working on ways to ensure that basic medicines were not kept out by the sanctions, Moumtzis said.

Although importing medical supplies is allowed, Moumtzis said government-held areas were running out of basic medicines because the country could not buy them with frozen funds, or because ships carrying them were not able to dock and unload.

"At the moment in the country, particularly in the government controlled areas, we are concerned from what we saw of medical supplies being depleted, of vaccines, basic medical commodities, for HIV patients, people with heart disease, chronic disease, diabetes and so forth," he said.

Failure to restock vaccines for contagious diseases like polio could lead to outbreaks that could spread across the Mediterranean to Europe.

U.N. agencies have played a role alleviating humanitarian hardship as a result of Libya's uprising and civil war. More than 850,000 people fled Libya, mostly foreign workers, nearly all of whom have been repatriated to their home countries with the assistance of U.N. agencies.

Moumtzis said the world body still urgently needed funds for humanitarian missions, with its main focus on helping civilians in areas where there has been fighting, such as the coastal area around Misrata and the mountains in the west.

(Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed in Cairo; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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