U.N. Aid Group Halts Work in Southern Somalia

BY Larisa Epatko  January 5, 2010 at 5:30 PM EST

The U.N. World Food Program announced Tuesday that it is suspending its work in portions of southern Somalia because of threats to its staff and “unacceptable demands” by armed groups.

“Staff safety is a key concern for WFP and recent attacks, threats, harassment and demands for payments by armed groups have decimated the humanitarian food lifeline, making it virtually impossible to reach up to up to one million woman and children and other highly vulnerable people,” a statement on the organization’s Web site.

WFP said it is temporarily closing its offices in Wajid, Buale, Garbahare, Afmadow, Jilib and Belet Weyne in southern Somalia. But the group plans to continue to deliver food to the rest of the country, including the capital Mogadishu, and is working with other organizations to pre-position food in the affected areas and prepare assistance in other places Somalis might go for help.

In Somalia, an ongoing civil war, coupled with droughts and economic hardships, have displaced about 1.1 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook. In addition, a hard-line Islamist group, known as al-Shabab, has taken control of southern Somalia and is trying to topple the fragile government.

Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker told the NewsHour on Dec. 23 after a recent visit to the country that with the instability there, Somalia might become a safe haven for al-Qaida: “There are now jihadi suicide bombers. This was unknown before 2007. They now are adopting the tactics that we have seen with the most virulent form of extreme Islam elsewhere, al-Qaida. They — if they’re not al-Qaida, they certainly want to be.”

WFP spokesman Peter Smerdon told Reuters that al-Shabab had issued a series of demands for the U.N. organization to continue its work in the South, including removing women from their jobs and paying $20,000 every six months for security.