MOGADISHU/NAIROBI (Reuters) - Al Shabaab rebels stormed and looted offices of aid organisations in famine-hit Somalia on Monday, the United Nations said, and the rebels announced a ban on 16 relief agencies from areas they control.
Rebels occupied agency offices and took supplies in southern and central areas at a time when a quarter of a million Somalis face starvation and Kenyan, Somali and Ethiopian forces are fighting the al-Qaeda-inspired group.
Al Shabaab, which controls large areas of the anarchic country, said it had “decided to permanently revoke the permissions of the following organisations to operate inside Somalia”, naming 16.
These included agencies like the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF and the Norwegian and Danish Refugee Councils. The International Committee for the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres escaped the ban.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, through his spokesman, condemned in the strongest terms possible the seizure of property and equipment belonging to aid groups and U.N. agencies.
The U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, said she was extremely concerned by the looting, urging the rebel group to reverse the announcement and withdraw from seized compounds of aid groups.
“Any disruption to ongoing humanitarian efforts threatens to undermine the fragile progress made this year, and could bring back famine conditions in several areas,” Amos said in a statement.
The rebels, who are hostile to Western intervention, banned food aid last year in the areas they controlled and kicked many groups out, saying aid created dependency. They lifted the ban in July when the food crisis hit critical levels, only to re-impose it later.
Some organisations were found to be “persistently galvanising the local population against the full establishment of the Islamic Sharia system”, the group said in a statement.
Al Shabaab, which wants to impose its harsh interpretation of sharia, the Islamic moral and legal code, also accused the banned groups of financing and aiding “subversive groups seeking to destroy the basic tenets of the Islamic penal system”.
Pieter Desloovere, WHO Somalia’s communications officer, said the agency’s offices in the Somali towns of Baidoa and Wajid had been attacked on Monday.
UNICEF’s Jaya Murthy told Reuters the agency’s offices had been occupied by al Shabaab in Baidoa on Monday.
“All of our staff that were in the office at the same time were asked to leave. All of our staff are safe. Our Baidoa office is currently still being occupied. No other UNICEF office is currently being occupied and all staff in Somalia are safe,” Murthy told Reuters in Geneva.
Aid sources said al Shabaab rebels had occupied UNICEF, WHO and non-governmental organisation offices in Baidoa and six other the rebel-controlled towns.
A number of the aid agencies are funded by western nations which support Kenya’s incursion into Somalia against al Shabaab.
Some aid efforts were suspended after Kenya sent troops into southern Somalia more than six weeks ago to crush the militants. Military action has also prevented displaced people returning home to plant crops during the rainy season.
A Baidoa resident described how the militants had seized the UNICEF and WHO offices there.
“Al Shabaab have just started to loot UNICEF and WHO compounds in the town - they stormed and seized the compounds two hours ago. Now I can see them carrying the agencies’ equipment out,” Ali Abdullahi told Reuters.
Another resident in Wajid said he saw al Shabaab fighters forcing security guards out of UNICEF’s compound. “Immediately, they started looting vaccinations and even the freezers in which they are stored in,” Fadumo Ibrahim told Reuters.
Two Somali soldiers were killed by a makeshift bomb in the capital as they were trying to destroy it, a police officer told Reuters.
“Two of our soldiers died and another was injured while trying to collect an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) item planted on the street,” Diini Yusuf said.
Kenya’s pursuit of al Shabaab across the border has provoked attacks on its soil. Attacks in Garissa town in North Eastern Province near the border killed 4 people and wounded 27 others last week.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Kenyan security forces of beating people and detaining them illegally in the wake of attacks in the province.
“Arbitrary arrests of large numbers of people - such as when there is no evidence to believe they are suspects in a crime - is a serious violation of the human rights of the detainees and unlawful detention should be treated as a crime in itself,” HRW said in a statement.