By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR, Nov 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tens of thousands of people who have fled fighting in Mali since September are going hungry because funding has run out as the conflict has escalated, aid agencies said on Wednesday.
The West African country has been a battleground of Islamist militants, ethnic militias and international troops since a rebel uprising was hijacked by jihadists in 2012.
Fighting has intensified this year, leaving 5.2 million people in need of aid - more than at any time since the start of the crisis, according to the United Nations.
Of 70,000 people who have fled their homes in the last two months, about half have received food and shelter and more than 34,000 have been 'left to starve', said the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
"No one predicted that the situation in Mali would worsen at this level," said Hassane Hamadou, NRC country director, who said the agency exhausted its emergency funding in September.
"Most of our analyses at the beginning of the year were not that critical," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The escalation was likely caused by a combination of increased counter-terrorism operations, poor rain that left limited grazing, and a presidential election in July that increased tensions, experts said.
Catholic Relief Services said it has responded to 19 crises since July, compared to five in the same period last year. In all of these cases civilians fled either military operations, threats by armed groups, or inter-communal conflict.
"We're all still kind of shocked by how much work there has been. Our team of responders finish one mission, come home and they're right out the door again," said Erik Heinonen, head of emergencies in Mali for the international relief agency.
"We've had to cut back on some of what we would generally want to provide to people who have been displaced, and really focus on what is the most life-saving," he said.
More than a third of the people who have fled violence are mothers and children, who usually bring nothing with them and have no access to food, shelter or clean water, said the NRC.
The United Nations requested $330 million for the humanitarian response in Mali this year, and received half that.
Foreign countries are spending much more on military and security operations in Mali, mainly aimed at rooting out Islamists, aid agencies noted.
"Maybe this is the time for the international community to start to think about the balance and see how to respond to the humanitarian crisis as well," said Hamadou of the NRC.
(Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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