WFP suspends operations in much of southern Somalia
By Daniel Wallis
NAIROBI (Reuters) - The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) has suspended its work in much of southern Somalia due to threats against its staff and unacceptable demands by al Shabaab rebels controlling the area, a WFP spokesman said on Tuesday.
The WFP has been central to international efforts to address an acute humanitarian crisis in the drought- and conflict-torn Horn of Africa nation. Experts say half the population need aid.
"Unacceptable conditions and demands from armed groups have disrupted WFP's ability to reach many of the most vulnerable people in southern Somalia," spokesman Peter Smerdon told Reuters. "Despite this suspension, WFP remains active in much of central and northern Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu."
He added, however, that it was now virtually impossible to reach up to 1 million women, children and other highly vulnerable people. About three-quarters of the 3.76 million Somalis who need aid are concentrated in central and southern regions.
Most of those areas are controlled by the al Shabaab rebel group, which Washington says is al Qaeda's proxy in Somalia.
Fighting in the country has killed 19,000 civilians since the start of 2007 and driven another 1.5 million from their homes. Amid the chaos, Western security agencies say it has become a safe haven for Islamist militants, including foreign jihadis, who are plotting attacks in the region and beyond.
Smerdon told Reuters that al Shabaab controlled 95 percent of the territory where its work had been disrupted. In November, the rebels issued a string of conditions for humanitarian agencies wanting to operate in the south.
"These included removing women from their jobs and a demand for a payment of $20,000 every six months for security," Smerdon said, adding that al Shabaab elders had later demanded that WFP and its contractors cease all their activities on January 1, 2010. Continued...