By Regan Doherty
DOHA (Reuters) - Qatar said on Thursday it was launching relief efforts to help hundreds of thousands of people suffering from conflict and drought in northern Mali, where foreign aid groups had to abandon work when it fell under the control of Islamist groups.
People uprooted or trapped by the conflict are going without enough food, aid groups say. That is being compounded by a wider crisis across the Sahel region of West Africa, where the U.N. says that 18 million people are facing hunger because of drought, failed crops, insect swarms and high food prices.
Qatar's Red Crescent (QRC) said it has signed an agreement with the Mali Red Cross to launch joint relief efforts in northern Mali.
Most foreign aid groups were forced to abandon work in the desert area earlier this year when it fell under the control of a mix of Islamist groups, some of which are operating alongside al Qaeda's North African faction, AQIM.
"The Qatar Red Crescent is extremely concerned about the worsening food crisis in the Sahel region, and in Mali specifically. With rising food prices, severe water shortages and the ongoing conflict, the people of this region need help to survive," QRC President Mohammed bin Ghanem al-Ali al-Maadheed told a news conference in the Qatari capital.
The Gulf Arab country has allocated 6 million Qatari riyals ($1.7 million) for relief efforts in Mali, he said.
A number of local aid efforts are being coordinated by Mali's High Islamic Council. But Malian officials said the Mali Red Cross has been refused access by the Islamists.
"It has been very difficult to access populations in the north, but with the intervention of the Qatar Red Crescent, we are able to do more," said Mali Red Cross President Abdourahmane Cissé.
QRC staff have already started working in Mali's north, deploying a four-person emergency response team to the city of Gao which distributed food aid to 1,000 households in June.
Fighting erupted in Mali in January when Tuareg separatists took up arms for independence but their movement was hijacked by the Islamists, who have taken over the northern zones of the West African nation once seen as a model of democracy in the otherwise turbulent region.
The country is still reeling from a March coup in the capital that has rocked its institutions. Its interim president returned late last month after weeks convalescing abroad following an attack by a mob.
($1 = 3.6410 Qatar riyals)
(Editing by Diana Abdallah)
(Reporting By Regan Doherty, Editing by David Lewis)