The UN World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Tuesday that it was running out of cash to feed hundreds of thousands of displaced and vulnerable people within Liberia and Liberian refugees in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Guinea. The agency warned that it might have to cut their rations from July.
WFP said in a statement that it had appealed for US77.7 million to fund its food distribution programme in the three countries, but had received only $32.4 million so far.
"Unless further donations are made immediately, WFP will be compelled to start cutting food rations to beneficiaries in Liberia as early as July," it said.
WFP said it was currently providing emergency food rations to 490,000 people in Liberia, half of whom are children benefitting from school feeding programmes.
The agency said it wanted to raise the number of children receiving free meals at primary schools from 258,000 at present to 350,000, but it would only be able to do this if adequate funding was provided.
Another key group of beneficiaries of WFP food hand-outs are the estimated 40,000 to 60,000 former combatants in Liberia's 14-year civil war who are currently being disarmed by UN peacekeepers
WFP is also helping to feed many of the 170,000 Liberian refugees in Guinea and a further 67,000 in Sierra Leone. The UN refugee agency UNHCR aims to start bringing these people home in October, but it estimates that about 50,000 of them have already returned spontaneously following the end of the civil war in August 2003.
Manuel da Silva, WFP's director for West and Central Africa, said: "Peace is making an uneasy comeback in Liberia. After years of fighting and destruction, Liberians must be able to reclaim their homes and livelihoods for stability to take hold. But progress is severely hampered if people lack basics such as food."
Da Silva added: "The post-war rebuilding of an entire country is both daunting and expensive, but the alternative is to allow it to slide back into chaos.
WFP said the United States had so far been the main contributor to its Liberian food aid programme, with a grant of $25.2 million. Japan, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands had also made major contributions, it added.