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.
He said the United Nations took that deadline seriously.
“The food stocks are out ... Most equipment has been brought out and vehicles have been brought out, as well as obviously all our staff,” he said. “Staff safety is a key concern for WFP.”
A senior al Shabaab official reached by telephone in the southern port of Kismayu was jubilant at the news.
“It is our great pleasure to see WFP and the other spy agencies suspend their involvement in Somalia ... We will never allow them to come here again,” Sheikh Ibrahim Garweyn, head of public affairs in the rebel-held port, told Reuters.
“We have great land and we can grow our own crops.”
In November, al Shabaab’s self-styled “Office for the Supervision of the Affairs of Foreign Agencies” accused WFP of devastating local agriculture by importing relief rations.
Senior officials in Somalia’s transitional administration declined to comment. But the spokesman for Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, a pro-government militia, accused WFP and other international organizations of directly helping their hardline rebel rivals.
“It is good news that WFP and al Shabaab have collided now. They have been operating in al Shabaab-controlled areas, but they still faced kidnappings, killings, threats and extortion,” Ahlu Sunna’s Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf told Reuters.
“Most of central Somalia has been peaceful for a year but they have not helped people, except for doing surveys. They should please come and help the people in these peaceful areas.”
The turmoil in Somalia has spilled into the waters of the strategic Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, where Somali pirates have driven up insurance costs and made tens of millions of dollars in ransoms by hijacking ships and their crews.
A former Islamist rebel, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, was elected president in January. While there were hopes he would be able to reconcile with the insurgents, he has made little headway and his government controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu.
Rival rebel groups also routinely fight for territory.
Additional reporting by Sahra Abdi in Nairobi and by Abdi Guled and Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Editing by Richard Williams