The U.N. food agency on Tuesday suspended the distribution of aid in southern Somalia because of attacks on its staff, a decision affecting up to 1 million people that highlights the dangers of humanitarian work there.
The lawless Horn of Africa nation is one of the most dangerous places in the world to live, but few can remember a time when aid workers have faced so many attacks.
At least 43 aid workers were killed between January 2008 and fall 2009, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Four humanitarian workers remain in the hands of their captors.
The U.N. decision is the latest setback for Somalia, which has not had an effective central government for two decades and sees near-daily violence in its capital.
In the southwestern Somali town of Jilib, Abdullahi Awnur blamed Islamic militants for interrupting the food aid distribution, saying it was an "indirect killing."
"We have been forced to flee from our houses and depend on food aid and now that it is finished, that means the armed group here does not want us to live," said Awnur, who lives with his eight children in a camp in Jilib — one of the towns where WFP suspended operations.
Further exacerbating the situation is the flight of hundreds of thousands of Mogadishu residents into rural Somalia, where drought has ravaged farms and life-sustaining livestock herds. Aid agencies estimate 3.6 million of the country's 8 million people now need food and other aid.
CARE International and Doctors Without Borders are among the agencies that already have pulled out of southern Somalia because of attacks and kidnappings. The World Food Program said Tuesday it, too, is stopping aid distribution because armed groups also had demanded that aid agencies remove women from their teams.
The agency is moving staff and supplies to northern and central Somalia from six areas in the south that are largely controlled by the al-Shabab Islamist group, said Emilia Casella, a WFP spokeswoman. The U.S. State Department says al-Shabab has links to al-Qaida.
"Up to a million people that have been dependent on food assistance in southern Somalia face a situation that is particularly dire," Casella told reporters in Geneva.
Militants deny claims
The WFP said that al-Shabab controls up to 95 percent of the areas affected, but al-Shabab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage called WFP's claims "baseless."
"All we ordered them was to buy food from Somali farmers and distribute it. They do not want to do that and because of that they have made this very ridiculous justification," Rage said.
Somali government spokesman Abdi Haji Gobdon called WFP's decision "very, very sad news."
"But we understand who is behind the country's problems. It is the opposition," said Gobdon. "We are hopeful that WFP will resume their operations as soon as possible, and not leave those suffering people to their fate," he said.
CARE International's Somalia director, David Gilmour, said that despite the enormous suffering ordinary Somalis have experienced the past two years, agencies are not able to reach those who need aid.
"Right now aid agencies are delivering where they can and not necessarily where it's needed most because of all the blockages, issues, incidents and threats which occur," Gilmour told The Associated Press. "There's never been this spate (of violence) directed towards aid agencies and their programs as has happened in the last two years in southern Somalia."
Abdirahman Meygag, a former senior Somali government official, said disputes over supply contracts are a key factor in many of the attacks on aid workers.
"Transport companies also resort to revenge tactics once they lose contracts," said Meygag, a former chief cabinet secretary. "Regional governments and local administration enforce road taxes and (aid agencies') refusal to renew contracts or to comply with local administrations' demands may lead to a death sentence."
WFP said armed groups also had increasingly been demanding that it and other aid groups pay tens of thousands of dollars in protection money. The agency tried to resolve the demands through meetings with village elders, but was unable to win security guarantees for its staff, said Casella.
Rage, the al-Shabab spokesman, denied the group had demanded money from the WFP.
The World Food Program is now preparing for a mass exodus of hungry Somalis from the south to other parts of Somalia and to neighboring countries, she said.
Somalia "has been described as the most complex emergency in the world and perhaps the most dangerous to operate in. The world is not hearing this," Gilmour said.