The al-Shabab Somali rebels have announced a ban on World Food Program operations, which were already suspended in rebel-controlled territory earlier this year due to "unacceptable" demands from the Islamist militants. A senior U.S. official says that al-Shabab, not the U.S., is the one "politicizing" aid to the country.
In January the WFP announced it was ending food aid to al-Shabab controlled areas after the group demanded, among other things, that all food be locally-bought and that the organization pay a $20,000 tax twice a year to the militants.
On Sunday the rebel group announced that it was formally banning the food aid organization, saying that the assistance meals destroy the livelihood of local farmers. It also accused the group of "covert" political motives.
The WFP insists its operations are non-political. According to the aid group, nearly half of the Somali population was in need of food assistance as of late last year.
The WFP aid to al-Shabab-controlled Somalia has been at the root of controversy for months after the U.N. agency accused the U.S. of withholding aid to rebel areas amid concerns that some assistance was finding its way into al-Shabab hands. Washington has designated the Islamist group a terrorist organization.
Two weeks ago, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, upped the criticism against Somalia aid programs' biggest donor, telling reporters in Nairobi that there had been a "politicization" of U.S. humanitarian policy towards Somalia. The U.N. official described U.S. conditions on American aid as "impossible," saying that allegations that assistance was being diverted to al-Shabab were "ungrounded."
The New York Times reported to have seen a draft copy of new conditions imposed by U.S. authorities on aid agencies in Somalia. According to the report, the set of rules includes barring aid groups from paying demanded transit fees to al-Shabab, including when stopped at rebel roadblocks.
In an interview Monday with VOA, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger, who also acts as the top regional U.S. official on Somalia, accused al-Shabab of being the one playing politics with the people's humanitarian needs, pointing in part to the group's earlier banning of U.S.-marked food aid in its territory.
He also suggested that claims by aid agencies of restrictive conditions did not paint a complete picture of the situation.
"We have not put down a set of conditions per se. We look at this as a practical problem, and we are looking for practical solutions. So, it's part of a dialogue. We haven't said, '1-2-3 and then go.' You just can't in a situation like this; it's too murky, it's too complex," he said. "What we are saying is that we are willing to work with you to see if at some point this aid can be provided to people in need. But you are not going to be able to do it effectively - at least no one has figured out how to do it - in areas where the Shabab is reigning supreme with brutality and violence," added the US ambassador.
He also took issue with the accusation that the U.S. lacks a basis for suspecting that some aid is being siphoned off by the rebel Islamists.
"Yes, there have been reports of extortion of funds from various donors and non-governmental groups. Some of that is hard to verify, but there are certainly those reports, some of them credible," said Ranneberger.
The U.S. has contributed this year to WFP food deliveries to northern areas of Somalia outside rebel control.
U.N. officials say funding last year for humanitarian operations in the chronically war-torn nation fell significantly short of its budgetary needs. They say that U.S. contributions to the U.N.'s aid operations more than halved in 2009 from the previous year's levels.