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Somali militants block foreign aid from famine-hit south Add to ...

Islamist guerrillas who control swaths of Somalia are banning food aid from foreigners – a posture that observers predict might cost millions of lives.

“This is yet another heinous crime – starving people to death in the name of religion,” Omar Jamal, a New York-based official with Somalia’s vestigial government, said in an interview.

Somalia’s al-Shabab militants, already globally notorious for suicide bombings and sharia courts that kill and maim alleged heretics, may well now be set to facilitate famine on an epic scale.

Al-Shabab has gained ground by targeting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, the largely powerless local authority whose ministers face widespread intimidation and possible death if they remain in the country.

This week, al-Shabab militants kidnapped a newly appointed female cabinet minister who they let go only after extracting promises she no longer work for the TFG. Last month, the country’s interior minister was killed in a suicide bombing by a female who was reportedly his niece.

In a country beset by two decades of anarchy and warlordism, these al-Qaeda-linked fighters continue to make gains as a relatively cohesive fighting force.

A spokesman for al-Shabab, which controls the bulk of Somalia’s south, recently told reporters its territories remained off-limits to groups such as the United Nations. This statement reversed a pledge to open the lands up for famine relief, a promise that had made the international aid organizations cautiously optimistic that widespread famine might be averted.

“We are not guaranteeing safety for any agency that was previously banned from working in areas under our control,” Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage of al-Shabab told the Daily Telegraph. “We shall also expel any agency that causes problems for Muslim society.”

He said al-Shabab leaders were “mistranslated” when they were quoted saying that they would let in foreign agencies.

Somali has 3.7 million people who are starving because of the drought, according to the UN. Because most live in the south, the UN says its food aid is reaching only about a third of those who need it. The UN World Food Program hasn’t been present in south Somalia since January, 2010.

“We have conflicting messages. We thought we were being asked to come in and resume our operations,” Julie Marshall, spokeswoman for the World Food Program, said in an interview. “We are appealing to the people that hold the areas to allow us to come in.”

The famine occurs as Somalia’s TFG, which controls hardly any territory in Somalia, is besieged by al-Shabab fighters.

Mr. Jamal, the TFG’s first secretary to the United Nations, suggested the international community should consider air dropping food onto the ground and snatching up al-Shabab leaders on war-crimes charges. He further suggested that because of the famine the TFG, a largely discredited authority lately criticized for using child soldiers, should be better armed to fight al-Shabab militants.

Very few aid agencies can work throughout Somalia, meaning the bulk of the international aid is being routed to the north and to areas of the capital, Mogadishu. Some aid organizations are able to get to the south through local intermediaries. Others hope to exploit fissures that can exist within al-Shabab leadership to get food into the south.

Yet this is not nearly enough to meet the huge and growing need. Hundreds of thousands of starving Somalis have been trying to flee to adjacent countries on long marches. Some perish during these long journeys, others survive only to discover that borderland refugee camps are overflowing.

Somalis in the West fear the situation is growing more bleak daily.

“Considering the scale of the problem you might as well say nothing is going in. They took food into Mogadishu today that’s enough to feed 15,000 people. What’s that ? It’s a pittance considering the scale of the problem,” said Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress.

There are no quick fixes to the famine, he said. But he added that “the Americans have to get back into the game.”

Washington has cut aid programs to Somali in the past few years, Mr. Hussen pointed out, partly because of Treasury Department rules meant to block any possible diversion of greenbacks to al-Shabab. The rules ought to be relaxed for now given the scale of the ongoing famine, he said, adding there are legal precedents for doing so.

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