Aid groups ready to work with rebels in drought-hit Somalia

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Relief groups and donors said Thursday they would help relieve famine in parts of Somalia held by Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab rebels, provided they could be sure their aid would reach those most in need. Tens of thousands have already died in Somalia in recent months, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization.
The Shebab appealed for help earlier this month, saying it would lift a two-year-old ban on foreign aid groups so they could help Somalis suffering from a severe drought.
“We are determined to test that pledge,” said Raj Shah, the USAID administrator. “We would like to see that access expand dramatically and rapidly. But they wanted to provide support to “those populations in critical need and not to terrorist organisations”, he added. Washington has listed the Shebab as a terror group. “We are trying to make sure our humanitarian commitments reach those most vulnerable people,” said Shah. On Wednesday, UN officials declared that two regions in the south of the war-torn country were suffering from famine. Hundreds were dying every day across the Horn of Africa region, the FAO said.
The Shebab welcomed the UN’s declaration, which concerned the southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions — both under their control — and said they would allow relief aid. Last week, the UN children agency made the first airlift of relief aid to Shebab-held town of Baidoa and said the operation had gone smoothly. “We negotiated with local authorities to ensure a safe landing and the safety of our staff,” said UNICEF spokeswoman Shantha Bloemen.
“We are aiming to reach at least 70,000 children in the next six months, but it’s a huge logistical challenge,” she told AFP.
The agency had worked with a network of local organisation to distribute supplies and independent monitors to ensure the aid reaches those in need, she added. The World Food Programme said it was discussing with other UN offices on how to deliver aid to southern and central Somalia under Shebab rule. “There are discussions about possibly airlifting in some areas,” WFP spokesman in Rome Greg Barrow told AFP. But he said that this was among a number of options they were looking at. The WFP pulled out of the region in early 2010 due to threats and the draconian rules imposed by the insurgents. Barrow made it clear they were aware of the problems getting aid to the drought-hit population.
“We would never hand any relief assistance over to any military entity in Somalia or anywhere else,” he said. “We look for a cooperating partner on the ground in these situations. “We have to work through partners in a situation where we understand there will be rigorous monitoring to ensure the assistance reaches those who need it,” he added.