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U.S. eases aid restrictions amid Somalia famine

Relief groups won't be penalized if they inadvertently help Islamist militants in the African nation, U.S. officials say.

August 03, 2011|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • Somalis at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya wait to be seen at a Doctors Without Borders post.
Somalis at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya wait to be seen at a Doctors Without… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration is intensifying efforts to deliver food to famine-stricken Somalia, easing restrictions on humanitarian aid groups so they won't be penalized if they inadvertently help Al Qaeda-linked militants battling for power in the country.

With the worst famine in decades stirring worldwide alarm, the new rules are intended to provide "more flexibility and to allow a wider range of aid to a larger number of areas in need," a senior administration official said Tuesday.

A widening famine and drought threatens about 3 million people in the Horn of Africa, many in remote regions of southern Somalia. The United Nations estimates it will need $300 million worth of food, medicine and other emergency supplies over the next three months to meet the crisis.

Much of southern Somalia is controlled by Shabab, an Islamist extremist group that is officially listed by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization. Under U.S. law, anyone providing aid to Shabab may be subject to prosecution.

Humanitarian aid groups have also worried about a 2008 U.N. Security Council resolution that imposed a travel ban and economic sanctions on some Somali leaders and their supporters. The impoverished nation has been without a central government for two decades.

The U.S. decision to designate Shabab as a terrorist organization in 2008 caused some aid agencies to halt deliveries to southern Somalia for fear they could be charged with helping the militants, who have carried out suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians.

According to a U.N. monitoring report last month, Shabab extracts $70 million to $100 million a year in "taxes" from groups and companies delivering aid. In the Mogadishu region, for example, the group's "aid coordinator" charged organizations about $90,000 apiece for a six-month pass to bring in relief supplies, the report said.

The system, and the costs, are not uniform, however. Experts say some Shabab leaders reject the idea of any Western aid groups entering territory they control, while others are willing to allow outside groups to operate for a price.

U.S. officials said Tuesday that humanitarian aid groups were never at risk of prosecution for helping starving people. They acknowledged, however, that U.S. efforts to ease the famine are likely to increase the plunder taken by Shabab.

"There is a risk there, quite honestly," said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. But, "we have decided it's worth some risk of diversion…. The human need is compelling."

The United States is providing $459 million in aid to nations in the Horn of Africa this fiscal year.

Foreign-based aid groups typically hire local truckers and other subcontractors to deliver supplies. Given the lawless culture and multiple armed groups, southern Somalia is an especially hazardous environment.

The administration aimed its new message at the international aid community, but only a few groups have the skills and experience to overcome the logistical challenges and risks to deliver substantial amounts of aid, officials said.

Brian Bennett in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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