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'Biblical' locust plague threatens Mideast
Ahead of Passover, U.N. agency warns of potential devastation

Posted: March 2, 2004
1:00 a.m. Eastern


With the Passover celebration just weeks away, a locust plague of biblical proportions could threaten parts of the Middle East and Africa, according to a United Nations agency.

An outbreak that potentially could darken the sky and consume everything in its path is "in progress on the Red Sea coast in Saudi Arabia where swarms are forming," the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said.

Despite intensive control operations, swarms are expected to move into the country's interior where a further generation of breeding could occur in the spring. Some could reach areas in Jordan, southern Iraq and Western Iran later in the spring, the agency said, according to the JTA news service.

The U.N. agency is appealing for $9 million to stave off outbreaks in desert parts of northern and western Africa, including Mali, Chad and Mauritania.

"If control operations have to slow down or be interrupted, more locusts added to those already there could contribute to eventually transforming the current situation into a plague," the organization warned.

According to the book of Exodus, a locust outbreak was one of the 10 plagues inflicted on the Egyptians prior to Israel's flight from captivity, commemorated by Jews and many Christians in the Passover celebration.

"The Bible and talmudic literature describe the plague of locusts as one of the worst visitations to come upon the country," the Encyclopedia Judaica says. "Its gravity and extent varies from time to time."

Another plague of locusts in the Bible was recounted by the prophet Joel, who said they made the fig tree "clean bare; the branches thereof are made white," JTA notes.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says the desert locust, a form of grasshopper, can quickly multiply into massive swarms capable of moving hundreds or even thousands of miles.

"When the locusts find ideal conditions in a sequence of seasonal breeding areas, upsurges can develop and lead to rapid multiplication and increasingly large swarms," said the U.N. organization, which has a special Locust Group to coordinate operations against any threat.

"If an upsurge is not controlled, a plague can occur in which swarms invade countries outside the traditional breeding areas," the agency said, according to JTA. "Crop damage by swarms can be devastating."

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