By Umberto Bacchi
ROME, April 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A U.N. agency said on Thursday it would pull staff out of some conflict areas and resort to costly helicopter aid deliveries due to heightened safety risks in famine-affected South Sudan.
Serge Tissot, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in South Sudan, said the agency was forced to act after the killing of three aid workers last week.
Violence against aid workers is increasingly common in oil-rich South Sudan, which is suffering the world's first famine for six years.
Since the civil war began, 82 have been killed.
The conflict in the world's youngest nation erupted when the president fired his deputy in 2013, sparking a confrontation between two of the country's largest ethnic groups.
Since then, the conflict has broadened and fragmented, drawing in a number of smaller ethnic groups and dividing some of the larger ones.
"The number of persons being killed since the beginning of the year is too high. We cannot continue like that," Tissot told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
Last week, three men working as porters for the U.N.'s World Food Programme were killed in Wau city, bringing the toll of aid workers killed this year to 15, Tissot said.
As a consequence, FAO has temporarily pulled out 40 percent of its staff from Wau, he said, but would not reveal numbers.
AID BY AIR
FAO was also considering switching most of its aid deliveries to helicopters in parts of the eastern regions of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei so as to keep staff safe, he said.
"We will operate in some locations only by air," said Tissot, noting this was increasingly becoming agency strategy.
"The main problem is that it is very expensive. It's something like ten times more expensive than (delivery) by road," Tissot added.
Without a presence on the ground, it would also be difficult to help farmers and fishermen, and control potential outbreaks of livestock disease with vaccination programmes, he added.
More than 100,000 South Sudanese are already experiencing famine, with a further million on the brink of starvation, according to the United Nations.
In recent weeks, fighting has engulfed towns in the southern Equatoria region, where fleeing civilians say government troops have embarked on killing sprees, slitting civilians' throats.
Farmers were missing the planting season due to all the violence, he said, in a development that could push the food crisis into 2018.
Tissot also raised concerns that the road linking the capital, Juba, to Uganda, South Sudan's main supply line of food, could be blocked by fighting.
"If the road is closed, we will be in a massive problem."
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)