Central African Republic food aid resumes as supplies reach Bangui

Three-week impasse ends as thousands receive food rations, but World Food Programme warns of further challenges ahead

An estimated 100,000 people holed up at an airport in Central African Republic (CAR) gained some respite this week when aid workers delivered food after a three-week impasse.

Families have sought refuge at a makeshift camp at M'poko airport in the capital, Bangui, as a wave of killing and looting continues to engulf the country, driving nearly a million people from their homes.

With food aid cut off by insecurity – two previous attempts to deliver supplies had to be aborted – tensions had been rising at the camp. But the resumption of supplies enabled rations to reach 5,490 people on Tuesday, the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) reported. WFP plans to reach everyone at the airport in 10 days.

Civilians stood in long queues in punishing heat to secure food and other supplies. The WFP thanked French troops for securing the distribution site at the airport, along with African Union peacekeepers patrolling the area. The distributions include rice, oil and sugar as well as buckets, tarpaulins and water containers.

Denise Brown, the WFP's west Africa regional director, said: "We appreciate the joint efforts of the international community, especially the efficient collaboration of the UN agencies, that allowed food distributions at the airport to resume. We very much hope that security conditions will allow them to continue."

She added: "We have overcome a significant challenge, but more are still to come. We are very concerned about deteriorating security in the north-west of the country."

Civilians seeking sanctuary at the airport have been forced to construct tents from bedsheets, tarpaulins, palm leaves and cardboard strips in an effort to gain some measure of privacy and protection from the weather.

Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, who attended the aid distribution, told Reuters: "The airport site is very complex. It isn't easy to manage more than 100,000 people. We tried it twice before and each time it was a failure."

This time "we dared to say to people to organise themselves to respond to the appeal of aid workers and help them to do their work", he added.

Security has deteriorated dramatically in CAR since a largely Muslim rebel group, the Seleka, seized power in a March coup. Its attacks on civilians have triggered reprisal attacks from mainly Christian militias.

The clashes have killed thousands of people, villages have been burned to the ground and widespread abuses have included the reported beheading of children. Amid warnings of deepening catastrophe, an increase in African and French peacekeepers appears to have had little impact.

Health and welfare systems, already decrepit, have all but collapsed. The WFP has appealed for nearly $107m to increase food distributions to help up to 1.25 million people from January to August.

Aid agencies are also tackling an outbreak of measles, with at least seven cases confirmed, including three at the makeshift camp at the airport. Médecins Sans Frontières said it was vaccinating 68,000 children in five camps in Bangui to prevent an epidemic.

Souleymane Diabate, the Unicef representative in CAR, said: "All the elements are present for a potentially deadly outbreak of disease – severely overcrowded camps, low immunity and extremely poor water and sanitation infrastructure. This is a deadly combination for children. Unless we act now, we could have a disaster on our hands."

An estimated 935,000 people have been displaced since the crisis began, according to the UN, including more than half a million in Bangui, equivalent to two-thirds of the city's population.

Chaloka Beyani, the UN's special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, said: "The number of displaced persons have increased dramatically over the past few weeks, and immediate access by humanitarian agencies, including to those sheltering in the airport in Bangui, must be granted without delay."


David Smith, Africa correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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