Al Shabaab rebels must lift their ban on 16 aid agencies to save lives in Somalia, said the top UN humanitarian official for the country.
In an interview with Reuters, U.N. humanitarian coordinator Mark Bowden also warned that intensified fighting in Somalia, marked by incursions by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops to crush the Islamist militants, could have dire consequences for civilians.
“The important thing for us is to maintain access. We have made considerable gains in terms of addressing the food crisis in the south of Somalia. Those are very fragile,” Bowden said, Reuters reports.
“We know there will be a long-term problem certainly up to July and possibly even later,” he said, noting that the rains needed for the main harvest are due at mid-year. “The potential to return to critical famine conditions is always high.”
The United Nations said earlier this month that a massive scaling-up of relief had helped cut child malnutrition and mortality rates after war and drought had left some 750,000 Somalis facing imminent starvation. The number at risk has fallen to 250,000, it said.
An estimated 1.5 million people are uprooted across Somalia, two-thirds of them in central and southern areas, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Al Shabaab rebels stormed and looted offices of aid organisations in Somalia on Monday, announcing a ban on 16 relief agencies in areas they control.
Al Shabaab, which controls large areas of the anarchic Horn of Africa country, said it had “decided to permanently revoke the permissions” of agencies including the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, the World Health Organisation, the U.N. Children’s Fund UNICEF and the Norwegian and Danish Refugee Councils.
“It came pretty much out of the blue,” Bowden said. “We know no staff has been imprisoned or threatened. People were just told to leave their offices and leave the equipment in them.”
Al Shabaab, which wants to impose its harsh interpretation of Sharia, the Islamic moral and legal code, also accused banned groups of financing and aiding “subversive groups seeking to destroy the basic tenets of the Islamic penal system”.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the looting and the world body has called for the rebel group to reverse the announcement and withdraw from seized compounds of aid groups.
“We are trying to see what the situation is, why it has happened. A lot of organisations on the ground are involved in discussions on the ground to try to establish what reasons are behind this list,” Bowden said.
“There may be potential for them to re-examine specific organisations. There is a great deal of concern that we allow local discussions to take place.”
Talks involved local councils and authorities, but there are no direct talks between the U.N. and al Qaeda-backed rebels, he said. “The central (Al Shabaab) leadership has never engaged in a dialogue,” he added.
One of the main issues raised by al Shabaab this week is the short-term nature of some organisations’ work, Bowden said.
“There are imminent needs to be addressed in the short-term like nutrition needed for extremely malnourished children,” he noted. “We still have very high rates of child malnutrition and quite high death rates.”
“The impact of anything, whether it is the expulsion of agencies or increased military activity, can provide the shock to the system that throws things back,” he warned.
“There is concern that if Somalia goes into a long, protracted period of conflict for whatever reason for the next months and fighting is widespread, then the humanitarian consequences will be very serious. We are dealing with particularly fragile relief operations.”