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Charity loads food aid on to barge in Cyprus headed for Gaza

By Yiannis Kourtoglou and Stamos Prousalis

LARNACA, Cyprus, March 9 (Reuters) - Charity workers loaded relief supplies bound for Gaza on to a barge in Cyprus on Saturday as part of an international effort to launch a maritime corridor to a Palestinian population on the brink of famine.

The European Commission had said a maritime aid corridor between Cyprus and Gaza could start operating as early as this weekend in a pilot project run by an international charity and financed by the UAE.

The Open Arms, a salvage vessel owned by a Spanish NGO and more accustomed to rescuing migrants at sea, was moored at a port in the coastal Cyprus town of Larnaca, 210 miles northwest of Gaza.

It will tow a barge with 200 tonnes of food sourced by charity World Central Kitchen (WCK) and mostly funded by the UAE. The timing of its departure from Cyprus was unclear.

Cyprus President Nikos Christodoulides, whose administration lobbied for months to establish the corridor, told journalists: "In the next 24 hours the vessel will depart from Larnaca. I can't specify when, for security reasons."

A spokesperson for WCK said the departure would take place "ASAP when all conditions are favourable," without elaborating.

It is an estimated 15-hour journey by sea to Gaza, though a barge tow could make the journey longer.

TEMPORARY JETTY

The United States has said it plans to build a temporary jetty to bring aid into Gaza, which has no port infrastructure. It too plans to initially use Cyprus, which is offering a process for screening cargoes which will include Israel officials, removing the need for security checks in Gaza.

Negotiations on a possible ceasefire in Israel's war against Hamas remain deadlocked.

Aid agencies have warned of a looming famine five months into Israel's campaign against Hamas. Most of Gaza's 2.3 million inhabitants are now internally displaced, with severe bottlenecks in aid deliveries at land border checkpoints.

A sea corridor from Cyprus would supplement attempts to boost aid supplies, which have included airdrops of food.

WCK has partnered with Spain's Proactiva Open Arms.

"WCK and partners agree more than one ship will be needed and are working towards a constant flow of aid," it said in a statement, adding that another 500 tonnes of aid was ready to follow the initial shipment.

A spokesperson for WCK said the intention was to sail to Gaza, where WCK and partners were building a jetty unrelated to the U.S. project.

Gaza has been under an Israeli navy blockade since 2007, when Hamas took control of the enclave. There have been few direct sea arrivals since then. Larnaca port was used by pro-Palestinian activists, who used small sail boats to get into Gaza harbour in 2008.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas, Stamos Prousalis and Yiannis Kourtoglou; Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Nick Macfie and David Holmes)