U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday appealed to al-Shabaab militants in Somalia to give unfettered access to relief workers trying to aid thousands of people threatened by famine. Clinton said a high-level U.S. team will lead a fact-finding mission to neighboring Kenya to review relief efforts.
The United States lists al-Shabaab, which has ties to al-Qaida, as a terrorist organization and has actively helped Somalia’s U.N.-supported transitional government try to resist a takeover by the Islamic militants.
But in an unusual direct appeal to al-Shabaab, Clinton urged the group to drop what she said was its deliberate effort to block food deliveries in south-central Somalia and in parts of the capital, Mogadishu, under its direct or indirect control.
“It is particularly tragic that during the holy month of Ramadan, al-Shabaab are preventing assistance to the most vulnerable populations in Somalia - namely children, including infants, and girls and women who are attempting to bring themselves and those children to safety and the potential of being fed before more deaths occur," said Clinton. "I call on al-Shabaab to allow assistance to be delivered in an absolutely unfettered way throughout the area that they currently control.”
Al-Shabaab, which dominates the southern part of Somalia, maintains there is no famine and has barred the entry of aid groups other than the International Committee of the Red Cross.
U.S. officials say drought and famine in Somalia have killed nearly 30,000 children during the last three months and the United Nations says more than 600,000 children are acutely malnourished.
Earlier this week, the Obama administration announced it would not rigidly enforce rules barring material support to terrorist groups and reassured aid agencies that they would not be prosecuted if some of their relief supplies or funds end up in the hands of al-Shabaab.
Clinton, who spoke at a press event with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, said U.S. officials are aware that al-Shabaab has extorted cash and other concessions from aid providers in the past.
“We know that they make money from kidnapping those who are attempting to provide humanitarian relief," she said. "We know how difficult this is. Therefore, we don’t want to add to the difficulty. If people from the U.N. or other organizations are trying to get food into the al-Shabaab controlled region, the United States will not be imposing the penalties that are called for under our law.”
Clinton said U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, will visit Kenya this weekend along with U.S. Agency for International Development Director Raj Shah and other officials.
She said they will inspect camps being set up along the Somali border to house people fleeing the food crisis, to assess immediate needs as well as steps that can be taken to mitigate the effects of long-term drought.