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MAJURO, Marshall Islands (December 11, 1998 - AFP)---Officials on the Marshalls Islands Friday called for a U.S. disaster relief food aid program to be extended for up to six months as many islands have not recovered from the El Niño drought earlier this year.

The United States has announced that food supplies will stop as planned in January, but Marshall Islands public assistance officer Andrew Bilimon disputed a U.S. agency assessment that crops are now recovering.

The Marshalls was hit with a long drought that began in December 1997 and ended in June.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which also provided emergency water-making equipment, has said the damaged crops are now recovering on all inhabited outer islands in this north Pacific nation.

FEMA has been providing food to about one third of the Marshalls' population of 60,000 since June, but shipments were reduced by 50 percent beginning in November, ahead of an end to the aid.

The decision was based on a report by FEMA agriculture specialist Leo Migvar, who visited four outer islands and the capital, Majuro, and reported all the crops had benefited from heavy rainfall. But Bilimon said while the agriculture situation on some of the larger outer islands had improved, that was not the case on many of the smaller populated islands.

"Many of the outer islands are still suffering the effects of the drought," he said.

Breadfruit and pandanus on many islands are still not producing, although this was the normal season for these staple crops, Bilimon said.

Bilimon said he would urge the government's disaster committee to recommend that food aid for outer island communities be extended for an additional three-to-six months.

Michael J Field, Agence France-Presse, Auckland, New Zealand Tel: (64 21) 688-438; Fax: (64 21) 694-035; E-Mail: WWW:

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