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UNICEF Pulls Out of Somali Town Following Death Threats

The United Nations children's agency announced Friday it is suspending its operations in Somalia's northeastern town of Boosaaso, in the state of Puntland, following death threats issued against one of its staff members. This may have an impact on the agency's development work in areas affected by the tsunami.

Two international and several Somali staff members working in the UNICEF office in Boosaaso are now in the Kenyan capital, while the rest of the local staff are at home in the northeastern coastal town.

UNICEF officials decided to recall the staff members and suspend the agency's operations in the town indefinitely, after a group threatened to kill the operations officer earlier this month.

UNICEF Somalia representative Jesper Morch explains.

"The specific death threats purport to be issued by a fundamentalist, extremist organization that consider the operations officer an enemy of the people in Puntland,” he said. “The death threats are very specific. Obviously, those that are behind the death threats are very aware of the movement of our operations officer, and, in general, of our staff."

But, says Mr. Morch, UNICEF believes the threats are actually coming from a car rental company that wants the agency's business, which it has been reluctant to give.

A UNICEF statement issued Friday says the Puntland state administration initially had assured the agency that its staff would be safe, then backtracked, and said the agency was no longer welcome in Puntland.

Somali presidential spokesman Yusuf Baribari tells VOA his government is still waiting for a report on what happened, and is eager to work things out with the agency.

"We will meet also with UNICEF, and, hopefully, at the U.N. level. Personally, I think it's something that can be sorted out through constructive dialogue," he said.

Boosaaso is the base that UNICEF and other groups use to provide aid to victims of last year's tsunami. The coastal Puntland town of Hafun was hardest-hit by the disaster, destroying most of the town's property.

Mr. Morch explains that the suspension of his agency's operations will affect long-term education, health, water and sanitation projects, meant to improve life in Hafun and surrounding areas.

"We are, of course, concerned that the broader efforts to generate development in the area now will come to at least a temporary halt. There will be a price to pay," he added.

Mr. Morch says his agency will return to Boosaaso when the Puntland administration can provide what he calls a safe and professional environment for UNICEF to carry out its operations.