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UN says locust swarms could add to Mali's woes

By AFP

ROME (AFP) - The multiple crises racking Mali took a biblical twist Tuesday when the United Nations warned the rebellion gripping the country's north was hampering efforts to prevent a locust plague.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said it was expecting a surge in locust numbers in Mali and Niger thanks to heavy rains and an accompanying boom in vegetation.

Ground teams in Niger, Mali's eastern neighbour, have treated 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) since June 5, but the continued unrest in Mali's vast desert north has curtailed locust-control measures there.

"In northern Mali, control operations cannot be carried out because of political conflict," the FAO said in a statement.

Mali, once one of west Africa's most stable democracies, was plunged into turmoil on March 22 when a band of soldiers seized power in the capital Bamako, saying they were fed up with how the president was handling a Tuareg rebellion in the north.

The ensuing chaos created a power vacuum and enabled the Tuareg ethnic rebels and Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters to seize the northern half of the country.

The radical Islamists have been imposing sharia throughout their territory, and aim to spread the strict Islamic law to the rest of Mali.

The FAO said it needed an extra $10 million (8.1 million euros) for logistical support in tackling the locust threat, including vehicles, communication equipment and pesticide delivery.

"Lack of equipment is particularly acute in Mali, where more than 30 pickup trucks and other locust equipment were looted recently in the northern part of the country," the statement said.

The organisation's senior locust forecasting officer Keith Cressman said good breeding conditions this year meant a second generation of locusts could hatch at the end of the summer, posing a regional threat.

"Swarms could move to Mauritania, Algeria, Libya and even southern Morocco as well as threaten crops during the harvest period in the Sahel of west Africa," he said in the statement.

Locusts have also been spotted in eastern Chad and in western Sudan.

The creatures, which travel large distances in huge swarms and can strip whole fields of their crops, were first seen in south-west Libya and south-east Algeria in January.

France had already pledged 850,000 euros ($1.0 million) for efforts to contain the locust threat and talks were ongoing with four other donors for another $4.0 million, the FAO said.

The prospect of plagues of vegetation-eating insects devouring the desert region's crops compounds pre-existing concerns about food security in the Sahel region and beyond.

West Africa is facing malnutrition in several countries amid the Sahel's third drought in a decade.

Crops failed across a massive swathe of eight countries after late and erratic rains in 2011, leaving some 23 million people across the region facing hunger, aid agencies have reported.

Agricultural production in the Sahel, especially Mali, Niger and Chad, is threatened by the escalating conflict in Mali as well as by locusts.

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