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Abidjan - The United Nations World Food Programme warned today that continued uncertainty over the safety of WFP staff in Ivory Coast could have a disastrous effect on its operations to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the country, particularly in and around the western town of Guiglo.

WFP was forced to halt all operations in the country until further notice following last week's disturbances, but it is the violent nature of attacks on United Nations' property in Guiglo that has caused particular concern.

"For the time being there is no possibility for our staff to return to Guiglo - it is simply too dangerous," said WFP Ivory Coast Country Director, Abdou Dieng. "While we are relieved that our staff have not been physically harmed, we remain extremely concerned for those we have left behind who depend on WFP for their day-to-day survival. Who is going to provide for their needs now?"

There is virtually no humanitarian presence in Guiglo after violent protests forced most organizations to relocate their staff. However, there are enormous needs in the town, where about 7,000 mainly Burkinabe displaced people are housed in one camp and 6,000 Liberian refugees in another.

A resumption of operations by WFP will not be straightforward and will take time. Called onto the streets by local radio broadcasts last week, looters stripped WFP's two warehouses in Guiglo of 683 metric tons of food and ransacked the main office, taking whatever they were able to carry with them, including computers, furniture and electrical equipment. Replacing the food will cost at least US$530,000, while losses to theft and damage at WFP's office are estimated at US$100,000.

Although other WFP offices in Abidjan and around the country remain open, staff are unable to move outside the main towns and food distributions are effectively suspended for the time being.

"Even if we were to recommence operations today, it would not immediately be business as usual," said Dieng. "The only people to suffer from this kind of setback are those who have suffered far too much already. We appeal to all concerned to allow WFP to carry out its work unimpeded."

WFP feeds a total of nearly 700,000 people in Ivory Coast, as well as over 200,000 victims of the unrest over recent years in neighbouring Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali. Should the situation deteriorate into a full-blown crisis, WFP has a contingency plan ready to be activated immediately which would ensure the food needs of a further 350,000 people are met.

Donors to WFP's regional operation for Ivory Coast and Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali include USA ($13.4 million), Japan ($5.9 million), Canada ($3.1 million), France ($2.5 million), European Commission ($2.4 million), Spain ($817,000), Norway ($362,000), Switzerland ($142,000), Italy ($44,000), Austria ($25,000).