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Somali Islamists ban aid groups, renewing famine concerns

NAIROBI, KENYA — A little over a week ago, aid workers in Somalia were cautiously celebrating news that half of the areas previously classified as most at risk had improved and were no longer “in famine.”

But by Wednesday there were several warnings that those hard-won gains were under threat from renewed conflict and the decision by Somalia’s Islamist insurgency to ban most Western aid agencies from its territory. The developments have aid workers warning that famine may return in places.

Al Shabab, which is linked to Al Qaeda, said this week that 16 organizations, including most UN bodies, must leave because they were “fostering secularism” and were “amplifying the refugee crisis.”

They were “financing, aiding, and abetting subversive groups seeking to destroy the basic tenets of Islamic penal system” and “undermining the livelihoods and cultural values of the population,” the statement continued. 

It even claimed that agencies — all Western — were making Somalia’s refugee situation worse by “failing to implement durable solutions.”

The banned agencies included UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the UN refugee agencyUNHCRNorwegian Church Aid, the Danish Refugee Council Concern, and others from Sweden,ItalyGermany, and France.

The move immediately shut down operations in Baidoa and Wajid, two large towns in the country’s center. The length of the ban was not made clear.

Valerie Amos, the UN’s humanitarian affairs coordinator, denied Shabab’s claims.

“Humanitarian organizations working in Somalia remain strictly neutral, and their only task is to save lives,” she said.

“Any disruption to ongoing humanitarian efforts threatens to undermine the fragile progress made this year, and could bring back famine conditions in several areas.”

The UN’s humanitarian coordination office later said that fresh fighting meant that almost a quarter of the people who received food hand-outs during October might miss them in November.

“Security incidents continued throughout the week, causing suffering to affected communities and hampering humanitarian access,” the report, released Wednesday, said. “Because of logistical and security challenges, 23 percent fewer people received food assistance between 1 and 28 November compared to the same period in October.”

There has been a surge in suicide bombings in Mogadishu, despite claims from the African Unionpeacekeeping force in the city that the Islamists had been routed from their positions there.

In the latest attack, on Wednesday, four Somali soldiers died when a suicide bomber dressed in military uniform detonated explosives outside army headquarters in Mogadishu.

General Abdikarim Yusuf Dhagabadan, the chief of Somalia’s armed forces, was understood to have been the target. He was unharmed.

On Monday, seven children were wounded in an explosion from an improvised device planted close to the city’s Banadir Hospital. The day before, 12 people died in two separate bombings elsewhere in Mogadishu.

Kenya‘s continuing offensive in southern Somalia, aimed at neutralizing the threat from Al Shabab, had also had an impact on aid deliveries, Oxfam said.

“We should be celebrating one step forward, with less people at risk of starvation. Instead, we fear two steps back with yet more conflict,” said Senait Gebregziabher, the agency’s Somalia country director. “The international community should be putting its energy behind serious diplomacy, not more fighting.”

More than 250,000 people are still at risk of imminent starvation, the UN said last week, down from 750,000 at the peak of the famine. Millions more still face sustained food shortages.

“The situation remains critical,” Baroness Amos added. “The progress is fragile and needs to be sustained.”

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