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U.S. rules hurt aid to Somalia: UN

A decision by U.S. officials to cut humanitarian aid to a large area of Somalia controlled by suspected terrorists is putting hundreds of thousands of people there at risk, a UN official says.

A decision by U.S. officials to cut humanitarian aid to a large area of Somalia controlled by suspected terrorists is putting hundreds of thousands of people there at risk, a UN official said Wednesday.

The U.S. reduced its funding to Somalia last year after its Office of Foreign Assets Control expressed fear that the extended supply line and areas where aid agencies were operating meant aid could be diverted to al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia with links to al-Qaeda.   

Somalian women wait with containers and baskets in hand to receive aid at a food distribution centre in Mogadishu on Saturday. ((Mohamed Sheikh Nor, file/Associated Press))

UN agencies, however, have not seen any evidence from the U.S. government that the aid is being diverted to the group, which is fighting the UN-backed Somali government, said Mark Bowden, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia.

"The problem seems to be that it has escalated to a higher political level," Bowden said. "And our concern is that … what we're seeing is a politicization of humanitarian issues."

U.S. efforts to place conditions on how aid is distributed in Somalia are impractical, he added.

The U.S. has cut funding levels drastically in the last year, from $270 million US to $90 million.

Aid desperately needed

About half of Somalia's estimated 9.8 million inhabitants rely on international aid. The country, located in the Horn of Africa, only produces about one-third of the food it needs and is one of the poorest in the world.

Intensified fighting between Islamic insurgents and the Somali military has forced an additional 100,000 Somalis to flee their homes, Bowden said.

"The options for a lot of Somalis look pretty bleak," Bowden said. "I do think it's our responsibility not just to help them, but to make sure that our concern to address the issue becomes a global concern."

Bowden said agencies were being asked to comply with impractical requirements by the U.S., but he declined to give details. He said stateside employees of the U.S. government's aid agency, USAID, were eager to resolve the impasse but said that they faced resistance from higher up in the administration.

"The whole issue seems to be dragging on for far too long," he said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi said he was not able to comment.

Numerous obstacles

American reluctance to release funds is not the only problem agencies are facing. The UN's World Food Program pulled out of much of southern and central Somalia after local Islamist commanders demanded $20,000 US payments every six months to allow it to operate.

The Islamists also demanded that the WFP fire all women working for it unless they were in clinics or health centres.

WFP will not restart its operations until the conditions are lifted and assurances given that it will be allowed to operate safely, said spokesman Peter Smerdon.

Somalia has not had a functioning government for a generation. Successive administrations supported by the international community have failed to deliver either security or services to the people.

With files from The Associated Press

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