US relaxes limits on Somalia aid

2011-08-03 09:05

Washington – The United States is working to get more relief into famine-ravaged southern Somalia and is reassuring aid agencies they will not be penalised for programmes in regions controlled by al-Shabaab rebels, US officials said yesterday.

State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said under new guidelines, non-governmental organisations working in Somalia would be protected “in the event their operations may accidentally benefit al-Shabaab”.

Toner said the change was intended “to send a strong message publicly to these groups that are working in the region that it’s OK for them to bring this kind of humanitarian assistance into areas that are controlled by al-Shabaab.”

“They won’t be held accountable to US laws that previously constrained them and (we will) ease some of the licensing requirements on them.”

The US has placed al-Shabaab on its official list of foreign terrorist organisations, a designation which forbids US groups from providing “material support” to the group that controls large parts of the Horn of Africa nation.

The designation has complicated international aid efforts for Somalia, where a famine is spreading and some 3.7 million people are in urgent need of assistance in southern regions, many of them in areas controlled by al-Shabaab.

Concerns over possible diversion of relief supplies to al-Shabaab prompted a number of international aid organizations to suspend programmes in southern Somalia in January last year and continue to constrain aid work, the US officials said.

Al-Shabaab has given conflicting signals about whether aid programmes will be allowed to resume but the US officials said they believed that, at least in some hard-hit parts of Somalia, it would be possible to get assistance in.

“We don’t expect there to be any grand bargain where we’ll be able to have access to all of southern Somalia,” one US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“(But) we believe there will be ways and opportunities to move selectively into southern Somalia,” he said.

The United Nations’ humanitarian aid chief said on Monday the famine in the Horn of Africa is spreading and may soon engulf as many as six more regions of Somalia.

The US has already started to move emergency food supplies into the region, with some 19 000 metric tons of assistance delivered last week.

Another US official stressed the new aid guidelines would include risk mitigation procedures designed to prevent al-Shabaab from profiting from any aid diversions but they conceded that some spillover was possible.

“There is some risk of diversion,” the official said. “We’re going to do everything we can to prevent that diversion ... but I think the dimensions of this famine, this humanitarian crisis, are such that we’ve got to put taking care of people first.”

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