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Aid Worker Released, but Troubles Continue for Humanitarian Effort in Somalia

The head of the U.N. emergency food distribution program in Somalia has been released, two days after his arrest by government soldiers. Sarah Simpson reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi that international humanitarian efforts to help violence-torn Somalia is struggling to overcome enormous operating difficulties, including pirate attacks on aid supplies and rising insecurity.

The spokesman for U.N. World Food Program in Nairobi, Peter Smerdon, confirms that the organization's top aid worker in Somalia, Idris Osman, has been released in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

Smerdon says that Osman appears to be in good health. Osman told colleagues that he was unharmed during his detention.

Smerdon says it is still not clear why more than 50 soldiers stormed his U.N. office on Monday and arrested Osman.

"We have not received notification of why he was detained and we cannot yet comment on the conditions for his release," Smerdon said.

Osman's arrest prompted the WFP to suspend badly-needed food distributions to this Horn of Africa nation, which has been in chaos for more than a decade. Somalia last had a functioning government in 1991.

Somalia's current secular interim government, installed with Ethiopian assistance in December, is battling an Iraq-style insurgency from Islamist groups seeking to return the country to an Islamic state.

The interim government's minister for constitutional and federal affairs, Abdullah Sheikh Ismail, tells VOA that he regretted Osman's arrest and hoped WFP activities would resume.

"We are sorry that such a personality has been kept under detention," Ismail said. "But we have been working very hard that he should be released. If there are some legal violations he has committed against the laws of this country, of course, that is a subject that will be dealt with accordingly by the justice authorities. But if he has been released, it is a good sign that we want justice to take its course and his activities [to] resume."

Government officials initially told VOA that Osman was being investigated for allegedly having links to terrorists. The WFP says the arrest of Osman was a violation of their U.N. immunity status.

The WFP is one of the few aid organizations to maintain a presence in Somalia. Many others have pulled out of the country because of insecurity.

Without a functioning government, piracy in the waters off Somalia has been increasing as well. On Sunday, a WFP ship carrying food aid for millions of starving Somalis was targeted by pirates in speed boats.

The program coordinator for the East Africa Seafarers Assistance Program, Andrew Mwangura says piracy is funding the continued insecurity.

"Somali pirates make a lot of money - they gain a lot of money - and that money goes back to support the military activities of Somalia," Mwangura said.

Piracy threatens a vital life line for much of Somalia's population of nine million. As much as 80 percent of WFP food assistance arrives in Somalia by sea.