[Dehai-WN] (Reuters): INTERVIEW-Somali Islamists urged to lift ban on aid groups

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Wed, 30 Nov 2011 20:55:13 +0100

INTERVIEW-Somali Islamists urged to lift ban on aid groups

Wed Nov 30, 2011 5:35pm GMT

* U.N. needs access to famine victims, coordinator says

* Al Shabaab has banned 16 aid organisations

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Nov 30 (Reuters) - Al Shabaab rebels must lift their ban on 16 aid
agencies to save lives in Somalia, the top U.N. humanitarian official for
the country said on Wednesday.

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.

"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." (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay;
editing by Andrew Roche)

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