Islamist fighters in Somalia said Friday that they seized food from the World Food Program from markets in Mogadishu and burned more than 500 bags of maize and wheat.
Sheik Ali Mohamed Hussein, an official with al-Shabab — Somalia's most powerful militant group — said the food was expired. A spokesman for WFP said the group does not distribute expired food.
"We have burned the expired food in public and we will continue the operation to check what is left in the markets to take care of the health of our people," Hussein said.
Photos of the burning showed white bags of wheat bearing an American flag and the stamp USAID — the U.S. government's aid arm. Other bags were stamped World Food Program. One photo showed what appeared to be old, clumpy maize.
"WFP brought the dirty food to poison our people. Many would have died because of the expired food so we have traced and raided from the markets and decided to burn," Hussein said.
Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for WFP, said he was checking on reports of the food burning and couldn't immediately comment. He said that WFP does not provide food for distribution that is expired.
Al-Shabab, a Somali group with links to al-Qaida, has threatened that Somalis who sell or carry WFP distributed food will be punished.
WFP in January pulled out of the Beledweyn area as part of a suspension of WFP operations in many parts of southern Somalia. The group still operates in Mogadishu and in central and northern Somalia.
Earlier this week militants confiscated several thousand sacks of food from traders in central Somalia after the militants alleged that the food sacks were from WFP.
Smerdon said that reports from Beledweyn indicated that the confiscated food was mostly wheat, and he said that WFP does not handle wheat distribution in Somalia.
Merchants were upset with al-Shabab for confiscating the food.
"They marked about 30 stores, including mine, in which the food was kept and ordered us not to open. They started loading some of the contents in the stores with trucks saying they will distribute it to the needy," said Ali Jamal, a businessman.
Another businessman, Adow Nuure, said he estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 sacks of food — sorghum, maize, wheat and oil — had been confiscated by the militants.
"We have nothing to do with WFP. We bought the food with our own money for business purposes," Nuure said.
Merchants said that food aid with WFP stamps on them were seen in the market but that no trader would say where the food came from.
"The food is distributed in central Somalia regions. Most of the time, it falls into the wrong hands the same people in charge of the site distributions corrupt it and it comes to the markets," Omar Muhidin, another businessman, said.
WFP says it targets about 2.5 million people for food assistance across Somalia, although 625,000 of those people are in areas where operations are currently suspended. In 2009, WFP reached 3.3 million people in Somalia with food supplies.
Earlier this year WFP faced allegations that up to half of food aid for Somalia was being diverted to cartels and other unintended targets. The top U.N. aid chief in Somalia, Mark Bowden, called the allegations "sensational" and said the allegations weren't based on any documentation.
WFP has previously said that internal investigations showed between 2 percent and 10 percent of aid was being sold.