Somali rebels lift food aid ban as drought brings deadly famine
Islamist rebels have lifted a ban on humanitarian agencies supplying food aid to millions of Somalis after the worst drought in 60 years hit the Horn of Africa region.
Somalia is experiencing pre-famine conditions, driving more than 1,000 people a day over the border into Kenya and Ethiopia, according to the United Nations.
Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for rebel group Al Shabaab, said: "We have now decided to welcome all Muslim and non-Muslim aid agencies to assist the drought-stricken Somalis in our areas.
"All aid agencies whose objective is only humanitarian relief are free to operate in our area."
But he added that they should first contact Al Shabaab's drought committee.
Al Shabaab fighters, who profess loyalty to al-Qaeda, control central and southern parts of the country. In the past, it has said food aid created dependency.
The United Nations says 2.8 million people in Somalia need emergency aid. In the worst-hit areas, one in three children is suffering from malnutrition.
Local analysts in Somalia said Al Shabaab lifted the ban to generate money to fund their war effort. - it previously told aid agencies to pay a hefty registration fee.
As a consequence, increasing numbers of people are fleeing rebel-held areas into government-controlled territory seeking assistance.
On Tuesday, Al Shabaab soldiers blocked two trucks carrying people from southern Somalia to the capital, Mogadishu, who were travelling north in the hope of finding food and water.
"Al Shabaab fighters said they would not allow people to flee to Mogadishu, which is ruled by infidels," shopkeeper Ali Hussein said yesterday from Afgoye, 25 miles outside the Somali capital. "Al Shabaab said it would open kitchens for them."
About half of Mogadishu is controlled by the Western-backed transitional federal government.
The senior UN humanitarian official for Somalia welcomed the news of the lifting of the food aid ban.
"I am happy to co-operate with anybody who can work to alleviate the current crisis to save hundreds of Somali lives," said Mark Bowden, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia.
The UN World Food Programme would not comment. It pulled out of southern Somalia in 2010 because of threats against its staff and demands by Al Shabaab of payments for security.
The world's biggest food agency has also faced challenges from donors after a local WFP contractor was exposed last March as a Somali businessman with links to Al Shabaab.
"We don't have anything to eat," said Sainab Yusuf Mohamed, from Bardhere District in south-west Somalia.
She said one of her children died as they were trekking across the desert in search of help, adding: "As we were burying his body, my second child died."
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