NAIROBI (AFP) – Attacks by Al Qaeda-linked rebels have led to the suspension of food distributions in large swathes of Somalia, leaving one million people outside the relief net, the UN food agency said Tuesday.
“Rising threats and attacks on humanitarian operations, as well as the imposition of a string of unacceptable demands from armed groups, have made it virtually impossible for the World Food Programme (WFP) to continue reaching up to one million people in need in southern Somalia,” it said in a statement.
“WFP’s humanitarian operations in southern Somalia have been under escalating attacks from armed groups, leading to this virtual suspension of humanitarian food distribution in much of southern Somalia,” it said.
Mired by almost uninterrupted civil conflict since the 1991 ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre and plagued by recurring natural disasters, Somalia is often described as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The radical Islamist insurgent group Shebab, whose leader last year proclaimed allegiance to Al Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden, has overrun and looted several key UN compounds in southern Somalia in recent weeks.
The latest to have been overrun was in the southern town of Buale, which the WFP said was temporarily closed, together with the agency’s offices in Wajid, Beledweyn and other major southern hubs.
“Staff safety is a key concern for WFP and recent attacks, threats, harassment and demands for payments by armed groups have decimated the humanitarian food lifeline,” it explained.
In the areas they control, the Shebab have also imposed strict conditions on foreign humanitarian organisations, effectively prohibiting their operations.
Somalia’s Shebab fighters, increasingly under the spell of Al Qaeda ideology, have been gradually weeding out the few foreign aid groups still operating in the country’s central and southern regions.
Late last year, the Shebab administration in the south-central regions of Bay and Bakool handed aid groups a list of 11 rules to comply with, including a registration fee of 20,000 dollars, payable twice a year.
Drawing fresh comparisons with Afghanistan under the Taliban in 1996-2001, the Shebab also imposed conditions complying with the strict brand of Islamic law they enforce in the regions under their control.
Aid organisations “should distance (themselves) from anything that will affect proper Islamic culture… like promoting adultery and establishing women’s groups,” said a document spelling out the rules obtained by AFP.
World Women’s Day is singled out along with Christmas and World Aids Day as proscribed celebrations, while “preaching democracy” is also listed as a value “interfering with Islam” that should be banned.
“WFP is deeply concerned about rising hunger and suffering among the most vulnerable due to these unprecedented and inhumane attacks on purely humanitarian operations,” the statement said.
Some estimates say that close to half of Somalia’s 10 million inhabitants are in need of humanitarian assistance, many of them emergency food aid.
“WFP is continuing to provide life saving food distributions in the rest of the country, including the capital, Mogadishu, reaching more than two-thirds of the hungry it has been targeting — or 1.8 million people,” it said.
Backed by the international community but still under-equipped and ill-trained, the security forces of Somalia’s federal transitional government have so far failed to quash a bruising Shebab-led nationwide insurgency.