Islamic group permanently revokes permission for organisations including Unicef and WHO to work in country amid famine crisis
Monday 28 November 2011 12.21 GMT
Efforts to feed 160,000 severely malnourished children in Somalia have been jeopardised after Islamist rebels banned several UN and international aid agencies, storming their offices in a string of co-ordinated raids.
Al-Shabaab militants, who have imposed a harsh form of sharia law in south and central Somalia, announced on Monday they were banning 16 aid agencies from operating in the anarchic country where tens of thousands of people have died from famine since April.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) said its office in the southern city of Baidoa had been occupied, but that all staff were safe.
Jaya Murthy, interim communications chief for Unicef Somalia, said al-Shabaab’s actions could threaten feeding programmes for 160,000 severely malnourished children across the centre and south of the country.
“We are extremely concerned that any interruption to our assistance could result in the death of thousands of children … If our supply pipelines are disrupted, it spells the imminent death of those children,” he said.
Somalia, which has had no stable government for two decades, has plunged even deeper into misery this year because of a severe drought and an intensification of fighting as first Kenyan and then Ethiopian forces crossed the border in the past few weeks to tackle the al-Qaida-linked Islamist rebels.
Al-Shabaab, which is fiercely opposed to any western or regional intervention, banned food aid last year in the areas it controls and kicked many relief organisations out, saying aid created dependency. It lifted the ban in July but now appears to have reneged on that.
In a statement, the group said it had “decided to permanently revoke the permissions” of the listed aid agencies to operate inside Somalia, accusing them of being “subversive groups” and “persistently galvanising the local population against the full establishment of the Islamic sharia system”.
The list includes the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), Unicef, the World Health Organisation (WHO), Concern and the Norwegian and Danish refugee councils.
Although famine conditions have eased since aid agencies increased their activities in Somalia, four million people still need food aid, with 250,000 experiencing famine. Aid agencies have warned that the renewed fighting threatens relief operations and could displace even more people.
Pieter Desloovere, WHO Somalia’s communications officer, said medicines had been looted from the agency’s offices in Baidoa and Wajid on Monday, but that no one was hurt and the premises were not occupied. “This will not affect our operations on the ground. We will remain present,” he said.
One aid agency official, who asked not to be named, said the relief groups wanted to respond in a calm and measured way to the al-Shabaab actions to avoid inflaming the situation. He said the attacks and ban were unexpected but not without precedent.
Since Kenyan forces crossed the border last month, al-Shabaab, which includes foreign fighters from countries such as Britain, the US and Pakistan, has increasingly sought to portray itself as the protector of Somalia against foreign intervention.
Ethiopia, which also sent troops into Somalia in 2006 but withdrew in 2009, said last week it had sent forces back into its neighbour for a “brief period”. Al-Shabaab is also fighting Somali forces and African Union peacekeepers in the capital, Mogadishu.