JUBA, Sudan Almost half the population of south Sudan is facing food shortages because of conflict and drought, a fourfold rise in the numbers needing aid since last year, officials said Tuesday.
"Internal conflict and incursions from the (Ugandan rebel) Lord's Resistance Army together with drought have made almost half the population of the south short of food," southern Sudan Agriculture and Forestry Minister Samson Kwaje said in a statement.
A total of 4.3 million need food aid in the oil-producing south, up from around 1 million last year, the U.N. said.
A surge in tribal fighting has killed more than 2,500 people since the beginning of 2009, aid groups say, and seasonal rains were weak across much of the underdeveloped region.
A census released last year showed a total Sudanese population of 39.15 million, with 30.89 million living in the mainly Muslim north and 8.26 million in the south. The south contests the census saying it undercounts southerners.
The U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP) said violence had forced 350,000 to flee their homes in 2009, leaving them dependent on food aid.
Last year's poor seasonal rains also destroyed harvests, and the area was bracing for this year's rains which could disrupt transport, it added.
"This spike in the number of hungry people in southern Sudan comes just ahead of the rainy season when roads become blocked and communities are cut off from food assistance," Leo van der Velden, coordinator for the U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP) in the south, said in a statement.
The WFP said it was hoping to help people across the region until the next harvest in October and November.
It added that its programs designed to reach 11 million people across all of Sudan in 2010 were facing a shortfall of $485.4 million.
Ethnic fighting, often sparked by deadly cycles of cattle raiding and revenge attacks, has plagued the south for years.
But the high death toll from recent clashes, and the targeting of women and children, has sparked accusations of political meddling ahead of national elections due in April and a referendum on southern independence planned for January 2011.
Both votes were promised under a faltering peace deal that ended more than two decades of civil war between Sudan's Muslim north and the south, where most follow Christianity and traditional beliefs.
The U.N. this month also warned drought and conflict had left thousands short of food and water in parts of Sudan's strife-torn Darfur region.
(Reporting by Skye Wheeler, writing by Andrew Heavens, editing by Michael Roddy)