GENEVA - Looters in South Sudan have stolen UN food aid that would have fed over 220,000 people for a month, the World Food Programme said Friday.
"Humanitarian access and looting of food stocks are major concerns," the UN agency's spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told reporters.
"As a result of looting reported at WFP facilities around the country, WFP currently estimates that we may have lost more than 3,700 metric tons of food -- enough to feed more than 220,000 people for a month."
Among the hardest-hit locations was northern town Malakal, the capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state.
Byrs said the WFP was trying to bring in more food, possibly through airlifts.
Aid agencies have been scrambling to deal with a ballooning humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, already one of the world's poorest nations, after fighting erupted in December.
Byrs said that it had been able to help 178,000 people so far.
"This number is rising almost daily, despite intense security and logistical challenges that have severely complicated the response," Byrs said.
The country, which won independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of warfare, has been gripped by clashes between government loyalists and a loose coalition of army defectors and ethnic militia.
Despite a ceasefire signed late Thursday in Ethiopia, the rebels on Friday accused the army of attacking their positions, though the military denied the claims.
Byrs said that the UN hoped the ceasefire would hold, enabling aid agencies to provide urgently-needed relief to the population.
Nevertheless, a halt to fighting is only the first step to restoring normalcy in the country, where homes, food markets and small businesses have been destroyed, and many people have lost their harvest.
"While a cessation of hostilities is enormously important, WFP remains concerned that the conflict has done so much damage that many people will continue to need food assistance for months -- or longer -- as they attempt to rebuild their lives," she said.
Up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed since the conflict broke out, and 600,000 displaced.
Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, said Friday that more than 100,000 South Sudanese have sought refuge in neighbouring Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan.
In Uganda, he said, the UN has started a mass immunisation campaign to prevent the spread of a measles outbreak among the 59,000 South Sudanese refugees there.
Edwards added that some 490,000 people are currently internally displaced, with many seeking safety in UN compounds.
South Sudan is also host to 230,000 refugees, mostly from Sudan, the bulk of whom relied on aid to survive even before the fighting began.
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Mass looting of UN food aid in South Sudan: WFP