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GENEVA (Reuters) - More than 1 million children in the Sahel are at risk of severe malnutrition and urgent action is needed to avert starvation akin to that in Somalia, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned on Friday.
The agency appealed for $67 million for 8 countries in the region where it said instability fueled by increasing activities of al-Qaeda and Boko Haram was compounding humanitarian needs. They are Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and the northern regions of Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal.
"In the Sahel we are facing a nutrition crisis of a larger magnitude than usual with over 1 million children at risk of severe, acute malnutrition," Rima Salah, acting UNICEF deputy executive director, told a news briefing.
"The countries in the Sahel, for example, if we do not now attend to their needs, it will become like Somalia and other countries," she said. "We have to prevent it before it becomes a disaster."
She was referring to the anarchic Horn of Africa country where the U.N. says 250,000 still live in famine conditions due to drought and conflict and a total of 4 million need aid.
More than nine million people in five countries in Africa's Sahel region face food crisis next year, following low rainfall, poor harvests, high food prices and a drop in remittances from migrants, aid agency Oxfam said last month.
The funds for the Sahel, for an initial six-month phase, will provide therapeutic feeding to malnourished children and campaigns to prevent the spread of epidemics including cholera. Some families will receive cash to cover higher food prices.
It is part of UNICEF's overall appeal of $1.28 billion for 98 million women and children in 25 countries. Somalia and other Horn of Africa countries (Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya) account for nearly one-third of the total amount sought.
"There is growing instability in the Sahel region, fuelled by the Arab Spring and increasing activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram, all compounding the humanitarian needs of children and women in the region," UNICEF's report, "2012 Humanitarian Action for Children," said on Friday.
The Libyan civil war might have given militant groups in Africa's Sahel region like Boko Haram and al Qaeda access to large weapons caches, according to a U.N. report released in New York on Thursday.
The U.N. report on the impact of the Libyan civil war on countries of the Sahel region that straddle the Sahara - including Nigeria, Niger and Chad - also said some national authorities believe the Islamist sect Boko Haram, which killed more than 500 people last year and more than 250 this year in Nigeria, has increasing links to al Qaeda's North African wing.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay Editing by Maria Golovnina.