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ICRC seeks record funds for conflict victims in 2009

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By Stephanie Nebehay

The Red Cross appealed on Thursday for more than 1.1 billion Swiss francs ($917 million) for its life-saving programmes in war zones often forsaken by other aid agencies, including areas of Sudan, Somalia and Iraq.

Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said he was confident donor states would support the record appeal for 2009 despite a deepening global financial crisis.

"The bad financial and economic situation and perspectives are particularly difficult for all those people who are already weakened by the combined effects of war, natural disasters and difficult access to food," he told a news conference.

The appeal covers ICRC programmes in 80 countries, where it distributes emergency assistance, and monitors the conditions of detention for those held in connection with armed conflicts.

Sudan, including the troubled western region of Darfur, is set to remain the ICRC's largest humanitarian operation in 2009, with needs set at 103 million francs ($86 million). Iraq follows at 96 million francs ($78 million).

The neutral agency is seeking to boost its programmes in some of the most dangerous places in the world, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Seven of our top 10 operations are in fact in areas where other humanitarian actors have no access or only limited access," Kellenberger said.

The ICRC is also requesting 50 million francs ($42 million) for work in Somalia -- two thirds more than this year -- to feed 500,000 people struggling to survive violence in that country.

Security conditions have improved in Iraq, although some areas remain highly volatile, according to the former Swiss diplomat who has led the ICRC since 2000.

"The improvement in the security situation has in no way reduced the need for access for humanitarian organisations like the ICRC. In 2009 we think the conditions will be right to expand our presence in Iraq," the former Swiss diplomat said.

The ICRC is currently visiting about 25,000 prisoners in detention centres in Iraq. They include 16,000 held by U.S. and coalition forces, 7,900 held by Iraqi authorities, and 1,400 held by Kurdish authorities in the north of the country.

Kellenberger, asked about media reports of poor conditions in Iraqi-run prisons, replied: "We have concerns and we have a dialogue with Iraqi authorities." There was "not yet a global agreement" to secure ICRC access to all such detainees.

ICRC officials have made 40 visits to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay since it was set up in 2002, according to Kellenberger. About 255 security suspects remain there, most having been held for years without being charged.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has promised to close the prison camp in Cuba after he takes office in January.

"Our main concern has never been when it will close. Our main concern is that the people being detained know their fate," Kellenberger said.

"We expect clarification on whether people will be freed or taken before a tribunal if they committed a crime," he said. (For more information on humanitarian crises and issues visit www.alertnet.org) (Editing by Laura MacInnis)