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UN chief warns of 'hurricane of hunger' amid Ukraine crisis

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks on the consequences of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in New York on Monday. (Photo by AFP)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned of the "hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system" in the wake of a simmering crisis in Ukraine.

Addressing correspondents outside the UN Security Council in New York on Monday, the top UN official said 45 African and least-developed countries import at least a third of their wheat from Ukraine or Russia, while 18 of them import at least 50 percent, pointing to the growing food insecurity.

“We must do everything possible to avert a hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system,” he said, making a passionate appeal. “In addition, we are seeing clear evidence of this war draining resources and attention from other trouble-spots in desperate need.”

Russia and Ukraine, the two warring neighbors, represent more than half of the world’s supply of sunflower oil and about 30 percent of the world’s wheat, Guterres said, noting that Ukraine alone provides more than half of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) wheat supply.

“Food, fuel, and fertilizer prices are skyrocketing. Supply chains are being disrupted. And the costs and delays of transportation of imported goods – when available – are at record levels,” he asserted.

“All of this is hitting the poorest the hardest and planting the seeds for political instability and unrest around the globe.”

Guterres called on the international community to find “creative ways” to address the increased humanitarian and development recovery needs worldwide and to release pledged funds. 

Late last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced what he called a “special military operation” aimed at “demilitarization” of the restive Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine.

Putin said the military mission was aimed at “defending people who for eight years are suffering persecution and genocide by the Kiev regime.”

Kiev has shown willingness to negotiate but has refused to surrender or accept any ultimatums from Moscow, even as fierce fighting rages on.

Negotiators from the two warring sides have held several rounds of talks in recent weeks but so far a breakthrough has been eluding.

The UN chief, in his remarks on Monday, said Ukraine was being “decimated before the eyes of the world” with the situation assuming “terrifying proportions”.

“Whatever the outcome, this war will have no winners, only losers,” Guterres asserted, adding that the war was reaching far beyond Ukraine’s borders, with a Sword of Damocles now hanging over the global economy – “, especially the developing world”.

He said the UN and humanitarian partners were working “to ensure safe passage from besieged areas, and to provide aid where security permits, allowing around 600,000 to receive some form of aid since the bombardment began.”

The top UN official announced further $40 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for assistance to people in the crisis-stricken eastern European country, but noted that “the avenues in and out of encircled cities are more precarious by the day.”

“For predators and human traffickers, war is not a tragedy. It’s an opportunity. And women and children are the targets,” he stated. “They need safety and support every step of the way. I will continue to highlight the desperate plight of the people of Ukraine as I am doing again today.”

Guterres’ remarks came on the sidelines of a briefing by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to the Security Council.

Zbigniew Rau, the current chairman-in-office of the OSCE, called the Ukraine crisis the worst-case scenario turning into reality and the image that war in Europe belongs to the past a shattered image.

Rau, also the foreign minister of Poland, said the war "threatens the very existence of the OSCE," but noted that the door to diplomacy was still open.

Russian officials had earlier accused him of lacking impartiality.

In a statement last month, Russia’s mission to the OSCE expressed surprise by the fact that the organization’s leadership was not calling upon Kiev to implement the Minsk agreements.

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