The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has inaugurated the first land crossing point for regular humanitarian shipments into crisis-torn Lebanon, where an estimated one-fifth of the population has been displaced by continuing bombardments since hostilities between Israel and Hizbollah fighters erupted two weeks ago.
The border crossing at the Mediterranean town of Arida, on the Syrian side of the north Lebanese border, is the only crossing point remaining open to traffic between the two countries. Over the past few days, tens of thousands of refugees have been flooding across the border point to escape the fighting.
WFP, which is organising the entire UN logistical operation for the Lebanon emergency, has sent ten trucks from Beirut to pick up the first consignment of aid from Arida. Seven trucks will be loaded with tents, mattresses and other shelter materials from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the remaining three with supplies from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
"The opening of Arida represents the unblocking of a major channel of humanitarian assistance and means that the aid agencies will be able to bring in more supplies, while continuing to procure inside Lebanon," said Amer Daoudi, Emergency Coordinator for the WFP operation in Lebanon. "There are still tens of thousands of people in the south of Lebanon in desperate need, particularly in the smaller villages south of Tyre, which we still have not been able to reach for security reasons."
Over the coming days and weeks, WFP plans to expand international access to Lebanon by negotiating the opening of the sea ports of Beirut and Tyre.
Further convoys from Arida are planned for Sunday and Monday, in parallel with continuing overland shipments by WFP of aid supplies from Beirut to the south of the country.
Yesterday, WFP sent two convoys south, one to Jezzine, carrying 90 metric tons of WFP wheat flour, 15 tons of canned meat and blankets and other shelter materials for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and the second to Sidon, with six truckloads of food for Palestinian refugees for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), as well as relief supplies for UNHCR, UNICEF, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
"We are now organising two convoys a day to the south and every day expanding the range of our operations, in order to reach as many of the displaced as we can," said Daoudi. "Security remains a major problem, as does finding drivers who are willing to undertake the journey. We always ensure that we have the concurrence of all parties involved before we dispatch a convoy and I am pleased to say that we have had no major security incidents so far."
Last night, a WFP-chartered Ilyushin-76 flew from Brindisi, Italy, to Latakkia in northern Syria, carrying temporary warehouses and generators to be transported to Arida, which will become WFP's loading hub for all UN humanitarian supplies to be transported on UN-escorted convoys into Lebanon. A second flight from Brindisi is due in Latakkia later today.
The Lebanese conflict has left over 800,000 people displaced amidst the wreckage of damaged infrastructure and a shortage of essential goods and services. This has been accompanied by soaring prices, with many commodities more than doubling in price over the past few days including fuel. The price of a taxi from Tyre to Beirut has skyrocketed over the past few days to US$1,000 - effectively making safety a luxury only the rich can afford.
WFP operations within the UN flash appeal total US$48 million. This includes logistical support and an emergency operation to provide food aid, valued at US$8.9 million, to respond to the immediate food needs of displaced Lebanese.WFP prioritizing assistance to those most in need, including 95,000 displaced people seeking shelter in schools and public institutions in Beirut, 165,000 people in the heaviest-hit areas in southern Lebanon and 50,000 of the approximately 140,000 people in Syria who have fled the conflict.
© 2006 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )