Somali rebels maintain aid ban
Mogadishu - Somalia's al-Qaeda-inspired insurgents said on Friday a ban on foreign aid groups remained in force and rejected a UN declaration that parts of the country had been hit by famine.
The announcement by Shabaab spokesperson Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage will likely scuttle plans by aid groups to deliver emergency supplies to the rebel-held regions, weeks after the insurgents said they had lifted the ban.
Relief groups had welcomed the easing of the two-year-old ban when the rebels appealed for help in the face of a severe drought that the UN said this week had left the southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions suffering famine.
"Those earlier banned groups are not welcome to serve in our area of control," Rage said in a broadcast on the Islamist Al Furqaan radio.
"There is drought in Somalia but not famine - what is declared by the UN is 100% false," Rage said.
"The declaration of famine is political and is a lie with hidden agendas," he added, admitting only that there is "a shortage of rain".
But the World Food Programme, which pulled out of southern Somali in early 2010, said it will work where possible.
"Al-Shabaab is not a monolithic organisation. Those in control of various parts of the south are not one controlling command," WFP spokesperson Emilia Casella said.
"It's important to note that we're working where we can. We're making plans to work where it's feasible."
The hardline rebels banned several foreign aid agencies from 2009, accusing them of being Western spies and Christian crusaders, and imposed strict rules that effectively impaired any humanitarian work in areas under their control.
They include the WFP, United Nations Development Programme, UN Department of Safety and Security, the UN Political Office for Somalia and UN Mine Action.
Others are World Vision, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency and Diakonia.
Rage, a senior official of the extremist group declared a terrorist organisation by the United States, overruled previous remarks by other Shabaab officials welcoming the famine declaration.
"The declaration by the UN was based on false information and even in the regions they declared famine the UN is not present," Rage charged.
Somalia is the worst affected country in the drought-hit Horn of Africa region, with malnutrition rates the highest in the world.
Tens of thousands have already died in Somalia in recent months, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, while thousands others have fled to seek refuge in neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya.
Somalia has suffered a relentless civil war since 1991 and the plight of its people is often referred to as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Donors and relief groups said on Thursday they were ready to test Shabaab's pledge to allow aid through.
The WFP announced that it will start flying aid into Mogadishu "within days".
In a sign of the dangers in the conflict-ravaged Somalia, the Shabaab on Thursday abducted a newly appointed women's minister while she was on her way to take up office.
Armed men seized 32-year-old Asha Osman Aqiil in Balad, a day after she was named in an 18-member cabinet in which she is the only female.
Last week, the UN's children fund Unicef made its first aid delivery consisting of five tons of food and medicine to the insurgent-controlled Baidoa town and said that the operation went well.
Some 12 million people in the Horn of Africa are facing starvation triggered by a prolonged drought described as the region's worst in decades.
Donor countries have ramped up aid pledges to assist the drought-stricken millions and UN chief Ban Ki-moon this week urged them to come up with $1.6bn in aid to combat the crisis.
South Africa on Friday pledged R1m ($148 000) for famine relief in Somalia and urged citizens and charities to also make donations to the victims.
France also doubled its aid for the crisis to $14m, a statement said.