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Fears for relief effort as military tension rises in Somalia

Mark Tran
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CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: A member of al-Shabaab controls a gathering in Elasha, outside Mogadishu, as people participate in a demonstration against Kenya's ‘incursion inside Somalia.' The rebels have vowed to fight back. — PHOTO: REUTERS
CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: A member of al-Shabaab controls a gathering in Elasha, outside Mogadishu, as people participate in a demonstration against Kenya's ‘incursion inside Somalia.' The rebels have vowed to fight back. — PHOTO: REUTERS

One hundred days since famine was declared, relief groups fear that rising military tension will jeopardise aid efforts in central and southern Somalia, where humanitarian access is already difficult.

Those areas remain under the control of al-Shabaab, the Islamist insurgents, who have restricted access to those affected by famine because they view western aid agencies with suspicion.

Sporadic clashes between the Transitional Federal Government — backed by African Union allies — and al-Shabaab broke out throughout September and October, despite al-Shabaab's “tactical” withdrawal from the capital, Mogadishu, in August. Instability in Somalia now threatens to draw in Kenya, which sent troops into southern Somalia last week after the kidnapping of tourists and aid workers on Kenyan soil by suspected al-Shabaab militants.

Kenya described the kidnappings as a serious provocation by al-Shabaab, with negative effects on its tourism industry. Its military operation is designed to prevent kidnappings of foreigners by pirates and extremists and to drive al-Shabaab from its main base, the port city of Kismayo, a smuggling point for weapons and contraband.

Uncowed, al-Shabaab warned that it would hit back. Four people were reportedly killed in an attack on a vehicle near the Kenya-Somali border on October 27, following grenade attacks in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, earlier this week.

Amid fears that conflict in Somalia will spill over its borders, the Food and Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit in Nairobi warned in its latest briefing that the security situation is more likely to worsen in south and central Somalia in the coming two months given the mobilisation of forces among the warring parties. Relief agencies are also alarmed.

‘Will magnify famine effects'

Barbara Stocking, the head of Oxfam, warned military action risks worsening the effects of famine and pushing more people beyond the reach of aid agencies.

“Somalia is at a turning point, and the next three months are critical if three-quarter of a million lives are to be saved from the ravages of famine,” Stocking said ahead of a UN ceremony to mark World Food Day and the food crisis in east Africa. “Oxfam and other humanitarian agencies have increased our efforts to provide relief and prevent more deaths, but the situation now risks going beyond our reach.

The international community must make a dramatic change in approach to ensure humanitarian aid can be safely distributed throughout Somalia.” Stocking called on the League of Arab states, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and the Somalia diaspora to continue to use their influence to ensure that humanitarian aid agencies have secure access to deliver aid to those who need it most.

The fighting has already caused a sharp drop in the number of people fleeing from Somalia into Kenya, which has the world's biggest refugee camp at Dadaab, where 460,000 displaced Somalis have sought refuge from war and famine. The U.N. said only 100 Somali refugees entered Kenya last week, down from 3,400 the week before. UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, says it is possible more refugees are moving into camps in Ethiopia instead of Kenya because of heightened military activity.

Conflict and famine in Somalia have forced more than 318,000 people to flee the country so far this year, with the majority going to neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia. In addition, around 20,000 have taken the risky sea journey to Yemen, with the rate more than doubling in the last two months, bringing the total there to an estimated 196,000.

Meanwhile, forecasts for the October-to-December rainy season indicate that food security may improve in Kenya and Ethiopia, where rains have recently begun. But the rains are a mixed blessing because after prolonged drought, seasonal rains increase the risk of flooding and disease.

But despite the grim backdrop, the U.N. special envoy to Somalia believes the country has the best chance for peace in years. Augustine Mahiga said the peace process has taken a “great leap forward” with the adoption last month of the roadmap that sets out a series of tasks to be completed ahead of concluding the transition process next August.— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

Clashes between Kenyan troops and Islamist insurgents threaten to further complicate difficulties surrounding humanitarian access.


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