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Somali Militia Returns UN's Jowhar Office

A warlord who seized a United Nations compound in Somalia's restive south returned it to U.N. control Tuesday.

Somali warlord Mohamed Dheere and his militiamen walked into the U.N. children's agency offices in Jowhar on Sunday and ordered the U.N.'s local staff to give him the keys to the compound. The U.N. international staff had been airlifted from Jowhar three days earlier, after a militia leader in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, issued a warning to foreign aid workers in the country.

Mr. Dheere gave the keys back Tuesday, without an explanation.

But in an interview on a Somali radio station Monday, Dheere said his militia took over the offices to guard equipment left behind by the U.N.'s international staff.

Christian Balslev-Olesen is the head of UNICEF'S Somalia office. He doesn't know when it'll be safe for the agency's international staff to return to Jowhar. He says that is being assessed by U.N. security experts in New York.

But the agency's local staff of 18 Somali aid workers has already returned to work, he says.

"We were told by New York to relocate,” he said. “Not suspend, not evacuate, but relocate staff out of Jowhar. People living in Jowhar, they were given the option either to be relocated or stay behind because they have their families and they are living there. And most of the staff decided to stay in Jowhar."

Mr. Olesen says his biggest concerns are the children and families affected when violence - or even threats of violence - disrupt aid operations, especially in Somalia where the government has collapsed, leaving international aid agencies to provide the bulk of basic services like health care and education.

"We have a number of programs going on: water and sanitation,” he explained. “The main activity just now is a back-to-school program. We have vaccinations; we have an HIV and AIDS campaign. We have a number of social activities going on in the interest of children and women. If we have to close down because of actions taken by the local administration, it's going to have an impact on the daily lives of many, many children and families."

The takeover of the U.N. compound has raised doubts about Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf's ability to establish authority in Jowhar, the seat of power for Somalia's fledgling government, which was formed in Kenya last year.

Its members are divided over whether the government should be based in Jowhar or Mogadishu, which President Yusuf says is still too dangerous. Also, members are split over whether foreign peacekeepers should be called in to help maintain order in a country that slid into chaos 14 years ago, after its leader, Mohamed Siad Barre, was toppled.