African Union forces fight militants in Mogadishu to clear way for food aid


African Union troops engaged in heavy house-to-house fighting in Mogadishu, seizing al-Shabaab bases in districts of Somalia’s capital in order to clear the way for aid groups bringing in food supplies to alleviate the famine in the region.

The World Food Programme said it cannot reach 2.2 million people in need of aid in the militant-controlled areas in southern Somalia because of insecurity.

A spokesman for African Union forces told the Associated Press they have surrounded most of the largest market in Somalia’s capital, where militants have been blocking aid to famine-stricken refugees. Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda said today that his forces had successfully moved up the east side of Bakara market and now control three sides of it.

He said forces are also moving up toward Mogadishu’s main sports stadium, and hope to capture it in the next several months. It serves as the main base for al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaida, AP said.

Some 3.7 million Somalis risk starvation in two regions of south Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab militants. The Islamist organisation’s position on aid is not coherent, as it has banned aid agencies and then said some of them could assist Somalis.
“Some of the Shabaab leaders … answer to their clans and communities in their areas of control,” Ken Menkhaus, political science professor at Davidson College in the United States, told AlertNet. “They care about getting food to their people and have a record of working with aid agencies.
“Others are constituency free — they come from other parts of the country or from abroad and tend to be indifferent to the costs of their policies on local populations. The famine is making this split crystal clear.”

Al Shabaab has blamed food aid for creating dependency. In February last year, the group ordered the World Food Programme to leave. In the same year, it expelled three aid agencies, accusing them of spreading Christian propaganda.

In 2008, 37 humanitarian workers were killed in Somalia, accounting for two-thirds of such deaths globally, according to the European Commission. The World Food Programme, which is channelling food through local groups, says Somalia is the most dangerous environment it is working in.

Al Shabaab lifted the food aid ban earlier this month, saying agencies with no hidden agenda were free to operate in their areas. But then it said expelled agencies remained banned.
“The agencies have been trying to deliver. Unfortunately, al-Shabab has been bent on ensuring this aid does not reach the people,” Ankunda said. “This operation is about the delivery of humanitarian aid,” he said, referring to the recent fighting in Mogadishu.

At least six people were killed during the fighting yesterday and today, with one official saying 19 African Union troops were wounded. The fighting occurred only a few kilometres from the nearest famine refugee camp, Ankunda said. Around 20 000 famine refugees have arrived in Mogadishu this month.

Ankunda added that al-Shabab had sent 300 reinforcement fighters to Mogadishu in recent days.

Refugees have said militants already killed men who tried to flee famine-hit regions of Somalia with their families, saying it is better to starve than accept help from the West. African Union intelligence reports have indicated there could be attacks on Mogadishu’s patchwork of ad-hoc refugee camps.
“This action will further increase security … and ensure that aid agencies can continue to operate to get vital supplies to internally displaced,” Ankunda said.
“Many Somalis in southern Somalia will die either under al Shabaab control or escape the region to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia or even become IDPs (internally displaced) in small areas controlled by ASWJ (Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, a pro-government group) and the TFG (transitional federal government),” said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. “Either way, this damages al Shabaab’s image and weakens its control.”

Aid organisations have been struggling to bring food to starving Somalis, but UNICEF airlifted several tonnes of food and medicine to rebel-held Baidoa earlier this month and the World Food Programme airlifted more food to Mogadishu on Wednesday. Others have been trucking supplies in from neighbouring Kenya.
“The airlift plans have not been affected at this point,” said World Food Programme spokeswoman Challiss McDonough. “Our humanitarian mission remains unaffected and unchanged.”

Troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have been eroding al-Shabab’s territory all year. Ankunda said the government now controls more than 60 percent of Mogadishu, up from around 40 percent at the beginning of the year, which will assist with relief efforts.
“AMISOM fully understands the need to restrain military operations while the aid agencies mount their humanitarian campaign. However, we are here to maintain stability in Mogadishu, and if we perceive a threat from the extremist insurgents, then it is our duty to protect and defend the most vulnerable from this threat,” Akunda said.