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World Food Summit opens with plea for Zaire refugees

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November 13, 1996
Web posted at: 1:15 p.m. EST (1815 GMT)

From Correspondent Richard Roth

ROME (CNN) -- The plight of refugees in eastern Zaire took center stage Wednesday at the World Food Summit, as the U.N. secretary general urged countries to unite and aid people who otherwise "face certain death."

In an impassioned plea, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told delegates from the 194 countries gathered that more than one million displaced Rwandan and Burundian refugees in Zaire are in desperate need of help. Most of the refugees are completely cut off from international assistance. icon (192K/17 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

"I would like to make a solemn appeal here to the international community to help those men, women and children who have lost everything and who face certain death unless they receive immediate aid," said Boutros-Ghali, who is trying to put together a multi-national military force to open aid routes into eastern Zaire.

"This is an all-out emergency and every day counts."

Boutros

Boutros-Ghali's appeal came in the opening minutes of the five-day conference and showed how the Zaire crisis has added urgency to the summit. More than 80 heads of state are expected to attend the conference, sponsored by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization at its Rome headquarters.

The refugee crisis was not on the official summit agenda, and conference planners had encouraged keeping the meeting focused on the ambitious but non-binding policy goal: to reduce by half the number of undernourished people in the world by the year 2015. About 840 million people are malnourished around the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Opened

Jacques Diouf, the organization's director-general who also spoke Wednesday, urged delegates to remain focused. He said the Zaire crisis should serve as a reminder of the rest of the world's hunger problems that go largely unnoticed. icon (212K/19 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Pope: Gap between rich, poor intolerable

Pope John Paul II, the first speaker at the conference, denounced the imbalance between the rich and the poor and challenged the delegates to "eliminate the specter of hunger from the planet."

"We have to jointly seek solutions so that never again will there be hungry people living side by side with people in opulence ... such contrasts between poverty and wealth cannot be tolerated," he said. icon (129K/13 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

The pontiff, wearing white robes and sitting in a high-backed chair, alluded to the Zaire crisis, appealing for aid to "countries torn by conflict and refugees forced from their lands without assistance."

Pope

He also criticized the use of economic embargoes "imposed without sufficient consideration" and appealed for the West to ease the debt burdens that "weigh on the destinies" of poorer nations.

The pope has often denounced sanctions as unfairly hurting common people -- putting the Vatican at odds with the United States and other Western nations.

His comments came a day after the U.N. General Assembly voted 337-3 to urge the United States to end its 34-year embargo against Cuba, whose leader, Fidel Castro, is expected to attend the summit and meet later this week with the pope.

"Leaders, economists and every one of goodwill must look for every possible way of sharing more equitably resources which are not lacking," the pope said. "By sharing in this way, everyone will demonstrate their sense of fraternity."

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