Myanmar food relief hit by protest crackdown - WFP

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BANGKOK, Sep 29 (Reuters) Myanmar's military junta has clamped down on UN food relief to 500,000 people, many of them children, as it battles mass protests against 45 years of army rule, the World Food Programme (WFP) today said.

Food deliveries from the northern city of Mandalay, where monk-led protests began 11 days ago, were stopped early this week, strangling WFP operations in Shan State and central areas.

''The immediate concern is in Mandalay, which is our logistics hub for delivering food assistance to vulnerable people that we serve in Myanmar,'' WFP Asia spokesman Paul Risley said.

The restrictions would be raised by UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who flew into Myanmar today to press the generals to stop a crackdown in which the official death toll is 10, but diplomats say is likely to be much higher.

Some 570 tonnes of food was stuck in Mandalay after authorities required transport permits from contractors hired by the food agency, which expects to feed 200,000 Shan this year.

Another 1,200 tonnes was sitting in the northwestern port of Sittwe, where tens of thousands of people have joined anti-junta protests in Mandalay and Myanmar's main city, Yangon.

Sittwe, from where the WFP will feed 180,000 people in North Rahkine State this year, was quiet today after young protesting monks were ordered home. Mandalay was also reported to be quiet.

''We are advocating with the authorities as far as we can access them,'' Chris Kaye, WFP coordinator in Myanmar, said in an e-mail from Yangon.

''Professor Gambari has a large agenda, but I am confident that we will raise it with them,'' he said.

The Rome-based food agency has complained before about the array of permits, checkpoints, local taxes and other restrictions that make it hard to deliver food to those in need.

The hungry are mostly young children and people suffering from HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

WFP nutrition surveys have found child malnutrition rates of 60-70 percent in some pockets of the country, including impoverished border areas where ethnic groups have waged armed struggles against the junta for five decades.

Some 10,000 HIV-positive women become pregnant each year, giving birth to 3,000-4,000 children who are infected with the killer disease, the children's agency UNICEF says.

The WFP has a three-year, 51.7 million dollars plan to feed 1.6 million people in the former Burma, one of Asia's poorest nations, but has only received 12.5 million dollars in donor funds so far.

''If the current shortfalls are not covered, it is to be expected that vulnerable families will face acute food shortages in an environment of rapidly escalating food prices,'' the agency said in a statement.

REUTERS SS KP1706

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