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By World Food Program (WFP)
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ROME, Italy, April 22, 2015/African Press Organization (APO)/ -- The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) says it is deeply concerned about the fate of three staff members who disappeared in South Sudan's Upper Nile State earlier this month.

“We are extremely worried about the fate of our missing colleagues and are working hard for their safe return,” said WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin. “Our staff take enormous risks every day to bring vital aid to people in critical need.”

The three WFP staff members disappeared on April 1 en route to a food distribution. They were traveling in a convoy from Malakal to Melut, carrying food intended for thousands of conflict-affected people, when witnesses say intercommunal fighting erupted along the road on which they were traveling. WFP lost contact with the three men and has not heard from them since, despite intense efforts to reach them.

The disappearance comes amid generally deteriorating security and increasing harassment of humanitarian workers throughout the country. WFP fears that worsening insecurity in some parts of South Sudan will make it harder for humanitarian agencies to reach conflict-affected communities with badly needed assistance, just as the lean season is set to begin.

“We are equally concerned about the welfare of innocent people, particularly women and children, who are suffering the consequences of this conflict,” Cousin added. “We are committed to assisting the South Sudanese people the best we can, but we cannot do our lifesaving work unless national and local authorities are willing and able to safeguard humanitarian staff.”

Because of increasing concerns about staff safety, WFP is re-assessing its ability to work in some parts of Upper Nile State. The agency plans to temporarily reduce its operations in those areas where it no longer believes it's safe to work.

“We regret that we must temporarily suspend food assistance in Akoka and Fashoda counties,” said WFP Deputy Country Director Eddie Rowe, in Juba. “We hope to resume as soon as we have the necessary assurances that our staff and partners can work safely."

The agency has been working with authorities in Juba, Malakal and Akoka to seek information about the whereabouts of the three missing staff members, to no avail.

The United Nations says 10 humanitarian workers have been killed in Upper Nile State since the start of South Sudan's conflict more than 16 months ago.

Another WFP colleague, Mark Diang, was abducted at gunpoint in October 2014 from the airport in Malakal, capital of Upper Nile State and hasn't been heard from since. WFP holds grave concerns for his safety and continues to follow up with the government regarding his status.

In South Sudan, 2.5 million people started this year unsure of where their next meal is coming from. Food security analysts believe this number will increase with the start of the lean season in May. WFP aims to assist roughly 3 million people throughout the country in 2015.