Ethiopia's prime minister says East African countries are ready to help provide security for humanitarian aid deliveries to famine-stricken parts of Somalia controlled by Islamist insurgents. The remarks from Meles Zenawi came Thursday at an African Union pledging conference that netted more than $350 million in cash contributions to help those facing starvation in the Horn of Africa.
Prime Minister Meles rejected the idea that the famine stalking Somalia is caused by a food shortage. He noted that parts of Kenya and Ethiopia have been hit just as hard by the Horn of Africa's worst drought in decades, but famine has been avoided in those areas.
Speaking to a hall filled with African and international dignitaries, the Ethiopian leader laid blame for the famine squarely on the al-Qaida-linked extremist group al-Shabab. He said it is no accident that the famine zone is limited mostly to areas of Somalia under al-Shabab's control, where aid groups have limited access.
"The lack of peace and security in many parts of the country and consequently the absence of governmental institutions has impeded effective response to the drought," Meles said. "The callous disregard for lives of the al-Shabab terrorists and their calculated sabotage of all efforts to help the needy has forced people to travel for weeks to get aid or die in their homes and on their way to refugee camps."
Meles said the six-nation East African regional group Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has developed a plan to provide security for Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) as it expands aid deliveries into rural areas no longer under al-Shabab control.
"We should be able to provide aid in Somalia, not only in Mogadishu but also other areas that are not under the control of al-Shabab terrorists," added Meles. "The IGAD region is ready to contribute to such cross-border operation by assisting the TFG and other forces of peace to ensure the necessary environment for such an operation. Our foreign ministers and chiefs of staff have already made the necessary decisions in this regard."
Meles appealed to the international community to help in expanding what he called "the zone of stability" in central and southern Somalia so that food aid can reach the estimated 2.2 million people in danger of starvation.
It was not immediately clear whether the Ethiopian leader's proposal would involve sending troops from IGAD countries to provide security for aid deliveries. Ethiopia sent troops to Somalia in December 2006 in an ill-fated attempt to support the Transitional Federal Government, but withdrew them two years later.
Delegates at Thursday's pledging conference heard worrying details about the scale of the famine crisis, prompting dozens of pledges of financial support. United Nations Deputy Secretary General Asha Rose Migiro, a former Tanzanian foreign minister, explained that the current death rate of 13 per 10,000 each day in some areas means an entire generation of Somalis hangs in the balance.
"When we say mortality rates in young children have reached 13 per 10,000 per day in some areas, that means by the time we go to sleep tonight, 13 children will have died in a community of 10,000 people today, and 13 more will die tomorrow and another 13 the day after," said Migiro.
Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was among four African heads of state attending the pledging conference. Speaking through an interpreter, he expressed thanks not only for the humanitarian aid, but also for international help in pushing back al-Shabab fighters, making it possible to provide aid to parts of the famine zone.
"We are appealing for getting humanitarian assistance and multiplying the humanitarian agencies' efforts in order to bring back stability all over the country and enable government to have its control over the whole territory, and we need assistance to overcome the situation where a war is being imposed on us by al-Qaida and al-Shabab," said Sharif.
African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping closed the conference with announcement that more than $350 million dollars in cash contributions had been received during the day. He said $300 million came from the African Development Bank and $51 million from other African sources, including the countries of the continent. He said there were also a few private donations. It was not immediately clear how much of the total was new money.