©Reuters- By Douglas Hamilton
CAIRO, April 4 (Reuters) - Ethiopia on Tuesday accused rich countries of waiting to see "skeletons on screens" before answering appeals to avert a new famine in the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin said the international community had been far too slow to react to warnings of looming starvation it issued in December, and was using the war with Eritrea as a pretext for delaying aid.
"This is Africa and the situation in Africa always gets a response from Europe or the international community when people start to see skeletons on screens," he told reporters at the EU-Africa summit in Cairo.
"All in all close to eight million people are threatened in Ethiopia alone. But Somalia, parts of Kenya and Eritrea are also affected."
EU Development Commissioner Poul Nielsen said he had discussed the crisis with the presidents of Eritrea and Djibouti as well as Mesfin.
He said Europe was making urgent plans, together with other donors, to send some 800,000 tonnes of food aid to Ethiopia: “We have people from the European Commission on site in the Horn of Africa today trying to assess the situation...It is indeed a major operation."
The British relief group Oxfam said aid for Ethiopia was not arriving fast enough and accused the EU of dragging its feet.
"The EC (European Commission) failed to meet its commitment last year, providing little more than half the food it promised. It is now more than one year behind on its pledges," Oxfam said in a statement sent to Reuters in Cairo on Tuesday.
It said the commission had pledged only 50,000 tonnes of food this year, compared with 480,000 promised by the United States, and had said it might take up to nine months to deliver.
But Nielsen said the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea was hampering the relief effort. "If we had peace and normal relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, then the harbour of Masawa would also be available and the problem more manageable."
However, Mesfin dismissed this argument.
"I tell you this is not a problem. Access is absolutely not the problem. No food aid has arrived in the region," he said.
"This false linkage should go away. People should focus on the real problem and the real problem is that the international response is very slow."
"No significant international food assistance is coming in," he said. "I hope it will arrive soon because people are on the verge of disaster. This famine must not mean mass deaths. That is behind us."
He said the worst affected areas were in southeast Ethiopia where there was no fighting. The area was closest to the port of Djibouti, and Ethiopia was ready to deliver food by truck as soon as it arrived there.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome has warned that up to 16 million people face famine in the Horn of Africa after three years of poor rains and crop failure aggravated by local wars and forced displacements.
Nielsen told reporters: "This issue was already on our daily agenda before the summit but I have used this opportunity to discuss directly with the countries involved. We are also dealing with Djibouti in order to make possible the big logistic operation."
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