NAIROBI (Reuters) - The United Nations will be forced to end food distribution in Somalia unless armed groups stop attacking U.N. staff, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday.
Humanitarian workers have been targeted during a two-year-old rebellion by Islamist insurgents that has killed more than 16,000 civilians and uprooted one million others.
Four WFP staff have been killed since August last year.
Peter Goossens, WFP country director for Somalia, said in neighbouring Kenya the U.N. agency was distributing about 57,000 metric tonnes of food to southern and central regions that should feed some 2.5 million people until around mid-February.
"That is it basically," Goossens told a news conference.
"Unless we get positive assurances from the population, authorities and whoever is in control of such areas that our staff can safely function, we will have no choice but to stop distributing food in those specific areas."
Underlining the risks to aid workers, an unknown group dropped leaflets in the central town of Badme, warning humanitarian workers to leave the area.
Various Islamist rebel factions control most of south and central Somalia, while feuding militias hold sway elsewhere and 3,500 African Union (AU) peacekeepers are based in Mogadishu.
The WFP has called on foreign navies to help it escort aid shipments through Somalia's waters, where pirates operate.
Thousands of Ethiopian soldiers supporting the Western-backed interim administration quit the capital last week, fed up with endless bickering within the government, the cost of the operation and the absence of international help.
The Horn of Africa nation has been mired in civil war since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Siad Barre.
Some analysts hope the Ethiopian withdrawal could spur opposition Islamists to join a more inclusive administration for Somalia, which the United States fears could become a safe haven for militants linked to al Qaeda.
A new president is due to be elected at talks in Djibouti by January 26 after former President Abdullahi Yusuf resigned.
The U.N.-led discussions in the Red Sea state aim to bring together the interim government and the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia.
Dozens of Somali legislators travelled to Djibouti on Thursday, some from Mogadishu and others from the central town of Baidoa, where parliament sits. Scores more were expected to fly from Baidoa and Nairobi on Friday and Saturday.
Ethiopian forces are also making preparations to withdraw from Baidoa by the end of the week, officials said.
Many Somalis fear more bloodshed, especially from hardline al Shabaab Islamists who have vowed to attack the departing Ethiopians, AU peace mission and government targets -- to try to impose their strict brand of sharia law.
"The government collapsed after our mujahideen made hit and run attacks that forced the Ethiopians to pull out ... We tell those who now flow into Djibouti: welcome to open fighting," al Shabaab said in a statement on its website, www.kataaib.net.