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Foreign Military Actions Seen Worsening Somalia's Humanitarian Problems


U.N. agencies, aid groups and analysts say foreign military actions currently taking place in Somalia are worsening humanitarian problems for victims of the ongoing famine.

In a report issued this week, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it was deeply concerned over the potential impact of the escalating conflict in southern Somalia, where, since last month, Kenya’s military has been fighting against al-Shabab Islamic extremists.

The agency said the hostilities were threatening the lives of those already in crisis.

Because of Kenyan aerial strikes into al-Shabab strongholds, Africa analyst with the Washington-based Atlantic Council, J. Peter Pham says many famine victims are unable to reach aid camps across the border in Kenya.

“They are now blocked in an area without food but no way of crossing over to where they might get some relief so in the short term, it is really going to increase the hardships,” Pham said.

Even though rains have started up again, aid workers from the British-based group Oxfam say that farmers are too afraid to go to their fields to plant seeds which were given to them.

Kenya’s military has said it is going after al-Shabab in reprisal for a series of cross-border kidnappings. It is calling on Somali civilians to stay away from al-Shabab fighters.

Al-Shabab has denied a role in the kidnappings, and is trying to use the current Kenyan operations as a way to boost its own recruiting.

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government which is supported by African peacekeepers initially opposed the Kenyan action, but then said it was behind it if the aim was to destroy al-Shabab.

Richard Downie with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says he hopes the Kenyan military incursion does not end up like Ethiopia’s own military effort to wipe out Islamic militants in Somalia several years ago.

“I think the longer it stays in Somalia, the bigger the risk becomes. We saw this back in 2006 when Ethiopia invaded Somalia. It was not very clear on its long term military objectives. It hung around for too long and it sparked a major insurgency which we are still having to deal with today,” Downie said.

The U.S. State Department has designated Al-Shabab as a terrorist organization since 2008.

Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College in the United States, also sees a potential problem with U.S. drone attacks, which are being launched into southern Somalia from a base in Ethiopia.

“They had better be confident that they are targeting extremely important top Shabab or al-Qaida figures or they risk actually producing more problems than they solve,” Menkhaus said.

Menkhaus says with the region still reeling from its worst drought in 60 years, he would hope policy makers would focus first on the humanitarian situation.

“When you have got a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude, we need to be devoting all of energies temporarily toward saving lives. These other objectives can be put on the back-burner temporarily while we do all we can to make sure that as many Somalis survive this terrible drought as possible,” Menkhaus said.

In July, the United Nations declared parts of southern Somalia as famine zones. U.N. officials say famine has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Somali children.

In addition to the conflict, U.N. officials say heavy rains and al-Shabab fighters have also been restricting access to aid. They say food aid is getting to just over half of the four million Somalis who need it.

The U.N. Children’s Fund is warning more than 150,000 acutely malnourished children under the age of five in Somalia could die within weeks.

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