Hand out food or leave, Somali insurgents tell agencies

Hardline Islamist insurgents in southern Somalia told international aid agencies on Tuesday to hand out all the food aid in their warehouses, or leave the Horn of Africa nation.

Islamist al Shabaab rebels and allied groups control large swathes of southern and central Somalia, while the government has little influence on the ground beyond a few blocks of the capital Mogadishu.

After a two-year Islamist insurgency and a prolonged dry spell, Somalia is wrestling with one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. There are a million internal refugees and more than a third of the population depends on food aid

Hussein Abdi Gheddi, the governor of middle Jubba region in southern Somalia and a member of al Shabaab, told the World Food Programme (WFP) and World Vision to hand out their food.

“We are telling them to leave the region, or else to distribute the food aid in the stores for the people in the region,” Gheddi told Reuters by telephone from the town of Buale.

Gunmen killed two WFP workers in January and the UN agency said on Tuesday it was seeking new security commitments from armed groups to conduct food distribution.

“We are sending our teams around south, central Somalia asking for a security commitment that we will be allowed to operate and our staff will not be attacked,” said WFP spokesperson, Peter Smerdon, in neighbouring Kenya.

“We will not risk the lives of our staff if armed groups don’t give us such commitments,” he said.

WFP said it was in the process of distributing 57 000 tonnes of food to last 2,5-million people until mid-March.

Despite the withdrawal from Somalia of their main foe, the Ethiopian army, Islamist rebels have vowed to continue fighting both the 3 500-strong African Union (AU) mission in Mogadishu and the government of new President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.

Millions more need aid
Meanwhile, the UN said on Tuesday that about 4,9-million more Ethiopians are in urgent need of food aid, bringing the total number of people in Ethiopia who need relief aid to 12-million, or 15% of the population.

“In addition to the seven million that continue to be assisted, 4,9-million people need emergency food assistance,” said Elizabeth Byrs, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The latest figure is based on an assessment conducted by UN agencies in November and December, which concluded that $454,3-million were needed to fund aid in Ethiopia during the first half of 2009.

Poor rainfall and harvests are hurting many in the east of the country, said Byrs.

“Concerns are high over continuing food insecurity in the coming months, in parts of the country,” she added.

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country, with about 80-million inhabitants, and has been badly affected by droughts, civil conflict and rising food prices.

Despite the tough conditions, the country is hosting increasing numbers of asylum seekers crossing over from Somalia into eastern Ethiopia’s Somali Region.

Byrs said that about 10 000 asylum seekers had arrived this year, and 150 more people were crossing the border daily.

“In Somali Region, malnutrition and food insecurity will likely exacerbate during the coming dry season from January to mid-April,” she said.—Reuters and Sapa

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