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Famine in Somalia worsened by terror militia's blockage of aid

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 15, 2011 - WASHINGTON - The famine in Somalia caused by the region's worst drought in decades has been exacerbated by the actions and threats of the armed Islamist group, al-Shabaab, that controls much of the stricken area, officials say.

"I believe al-Shabaab is directly responsible for the starvation" in its part of Somalia, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., told the Beacon. He called for strengthening U.S. relief aid to the refugee camps and other steps to encourage desertions from al-Shabaab's militias.

Kirk's assessment was echoed in part by a report issued Sunday by Human Rights Watch, which quoted refugees who alleged that al-Shabaab had banned aid agencies as "infidels" and seized livestock and crops from some destitute farms.

"Abuses by al-Shabaab and pro-government forces have vastly multiplied the suffering from Somalia's famine," said the organization's Africa director, Daniel Bekele, in a statement. The report said that "the impact of al-Shabaab's total prohibitions on food aid in areas under its control has been devastating for affected communities."

The report quoted a refugee from a southern Somalia district, who said al-Shabaab militias are accepting "no humanitarian aid ... They say, 'These are infidels who are distributing food and we don't want anything from them.'''

Brought on by the worst drought in decades in the Horn of Africa, famine has struck tens of thousands of people in Somalia, many of them children. The United Nations, which says famine has struck five regions in the country, predicts that the crisis will worsen. The starvation is worst in the south, which is controlled by al-Shabaab militias and where an estimated 3 million people live. With food assistance blocked, many Somalis have fled to overcrowded refugee camps in neighboring countries.

Kirk, a Naval Reserve intelligence officer, visited parts of Somalia in May as part of an investigation into piracy that is based mostly in ports controlled by al-Shabaab, which has received payments from the pirate groups. The U.S. government, citing its links to al-Qaida, lists al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization.Somalia

Kirk said he told Raj Shah, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, recently that "our policy should be to fully fund and support the refugee camps and make sure that life everywhere outside of al-Shabaab's territory is improving." That would heighten the contrast with conditions in the militia's territory, which Kirk says are "terrible."

Aside from helping relieve the famine among Somali refugees, Kirk said, he hoped that such actions would lead to such a disparity "that al-Shabaab's forces will quickly desert the cause of jihad because it only leads to suicide bombing and starvation."

But Beckele of Human Rights Watch said other militias in Somalia had also committed abuses and kept aid from the starving -- including some associated with the weak Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the African Union peacekeeping forces (called AMISOM), and several Somali militias backed by neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.

The Human Rights Watch report said Somali civilians bore the brunt of the fighting that occurred during two big TFG offensives against al-Shabaab since September 2010. Al-Shabaab fighters fired mortars indiscriminately from densely populated areas in the capital of Mogadishu, and the TFG and AMISOM forces at times responded in kind with indiscriminate counterattacks. Even though al-Shabaab is reported to have withdrawn forces from the capital, Mogadishu, the organization's report warned that future abuses are likely unless the warring parties take measures to end them.

"All sides need to take urgent steps to stop these unlawful attacks, let in aid, and end this humanitarian nightmare," said Beckele.

But the food aid from abroad has too often been diverted away from the famine victims within Somalia -- especially those in regions controlled by al-Shabaab militias.

On Saturday, the United Nations' World Food Program (WFP) said it is expanding its food distribution efforts in Somalia, where the U.N. estimates that only 20 percent of people needing aid are actually getting it.

One reason for that disconnect, the Associated Press reported, is that "thousands of sacks of food aid meant for Somalia's famine victims have been stolen and are being sold at markets in the same neighborhoods where skeletal children in filthy refugee camps can't find enough to eat."

The food program reportedly has been investigating food theft in Somalia for two months, but an official told the AP that the scale of the famine is so wide that suspending food aid would lead to "many unnecessary deaths." However, the food program recently suspended operations in al-Shabaab territory, where 14 of its aid workers have been killed since 2008.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that a cholera epidemic appears to be spreading among the hundreds of thousands of people living in unsanitary conditions in Mogadishu who have fled famine elsewhere in the country. A WHO public health adviser, Michel Yao, said that three-fourths of the cholera cases involve children under the age of 5 who have been weakened by malnutrition.

Kirk Hopes Defeats Will Weaken Al-Shabaab, Somali Piracy

One of the few nuggets of good news in the midst of all the suffering, Kirk said, is that international opposition to al-Shabaab is growing, and its militias have been pushed back by rival forces.

"In the last six months, al-Shabaab has suffered a number of military setbacks," said Kirk. He said the damage was inflicted mainly "by proxy armies -- funded by Kenya in the south, Ethiopia is the west and by the United States in Mogadishu -- that have all dealt pretty severe setbacks to al-Shabaab."

Because some funds that support al-Shabaab and its terrorist activities are funneled from the ransoms of Somali pirates who operate in the militia's territory, Kirk said that one key to cutting off that revenue would be stopping the lucrative piracy.

"If these [al-Shabaab] setbacks continue, there may come a time when U.S. allies overrun the pirate anchorages," Kirk said. In May, he said the pirates were holding 20 merchant ships with an estimated 480 Western and allied sailors hostage in those anchorages off the Somali coast.

If al-Shabaab forces are driven inland from the Somali coast, Kirk said, "we will have a unique situation where we'll have hundreds of sailors trapped aboard these ships -- and yet the pirates will not control the shoreline."

Over the past three years, the senator said, the number of pirate attacks has tripled. In May, he estimated that "about a third of the [pirate ransoms] -- roughly $50 million -- has been paid to al-Shabaab, which operates the largest terror training camps on earth." U.S. officials believe al-Shabaab is coordinating with al-Qaida groups in Yemen and may be plotting attacks in the region and abroad.

Other estimates of the pirate-related income vary. A Reuters investigation, citing U.N. and other sources, reported that in a three-month period earlier this year, al-Shabaab's "marine office" in the port of Xarardheere got about $1.1 million of the ransoms paid for six hijacked vessels.

But payments from Somali pirates represent only part of al-Shabaab's income. A report last month by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea said al-Shabaab now "generates between $70 million and $100 million per year, from duties and fees levied at airports and seaports, taxes on goods and services, taxes in kind on domestic produce, 'jihad contributions,' checkpoints and various forms of extortion justified in terms of religious obligation."

The monitoring group said that al-Shabaab "presents an increasingly acute regional and international threat," and -- despite its recent military setbacks -- "the economic health of al-Shabaab is more robust than ever."

Another key to al-Shabaab's influence is its flow of arms and ammunition. Last week, a report by an international security think tank, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, found that arms are still being smuggled into Somalia despite a United Nations embargo. The report said weapons and ammunition continue to be illegally sent from Yemen to Somalia to support opposition and criminal groups.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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