The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday it had agreed with Libya to open a new route to truck food aid to victims of the conflict in Sudan's Darfur province 3,000 km across the Sahara desert.
The first pioneering convoy would leave the Mediterranean port of Benghazi in early August, it said in a statement.
WFP's Chief Logistics Officer, Pierre Caras, told IRIN by telephone from Rome that a new trail would have to be blazed across 1,500 km of roadless desert between southern Libya and northern Chad to enable the trucks to get through.
But he said the trans-Sahara route would eventually enable WFP to transport an extra 3,000 tonnes of food per month to the 1.2 million displaced people displaced by fighting in Darfur and 175,000 refugees of the conflict who have fled to eastern Chad.
Caras stressed that the new route would be particularly useful during the four-month rainy season from June to September, during which many dirt roads in the Savannah region of the Sahel become impassible, hindering aid flows into the remote region from Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast and the Cameroonian port of Douala.
"The new corridor will allow us to reduce pressure on the other transport routes and send aid into areas that would otherwise not be accessible during the rainy season," he said. "With the assistance agreed by the Libyan government, this corridor has become competitive in terms of price and time."
Caras said each convoy from Libya would take about three weeks to reach the refugee camps near the Chad-Sudan border. That was similar to the time it usually took aid to reach Darfur from Port Sudan or eastern Chad from Douala.
"The opening of the Libyan corridor will make a difference because the transport corridor within Sudan is already overloaded with goods destined for aid operations in the south of the country and the gigantic aid operation in Darfur. It will also make a difference in Chad where roads have been cut by the rains," the WFP official said.
"The first convoy carrying about 420 tonnes - that will depend on contributions - is expected to leave during the first fortnight of August. During September, we hope to truck 4,200 tonnes (across the desert)," he added.
Caras said there was a tarmac road for the first 1,000 km of the journey from Benghazi to the oasis of Al Khofra in southern Libya.
"The trucks can do that journey in three days, but after that from Al Khofra to Abeche in eastern Chad, it is 1,500 km of desert," he added.
Caras said the Libyan government had agreed to facilitate transit procedures and waive all taxes and customs duties on aid passing through its territory. It would also provide escorts for the aid convoys free of charge.
WFP hoped to use the new trans-Saharan corridor, which follows an ancient trade route, as a long-term means of funnelling food aid into remote areas of the Sahel, he stressed.
Caras said WFP would also explore another trans-Sahara route that runs further west from Tripoli via the oasis of Sabha in southwestern Libya, to both Chad and Niger.