The World Food Program is pulling its operations out of much of rebel-controlled Somalia, affecting some 1 million in-need Somalis. The food aid organization is citing "unacceptable demands" from the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab that reached a breaking point in the form of a January 1 rebel-issued ultimatum.
The WFP says that nearly one-third of all those it planned to feed in the country will be affected by this move. The worst drought in nearly two decades and ongoing instability has left a significant portion of Somalis reliant on emergency relief for basic survival.
Ninety-five percent of the affected area is southern Somalia territory controlled by al-Shabab, the exception being the central Somali town of Beledweyne, held by Hizbul Islam, a rebel group loosely partnered with al-Shabab.
WFP spokesperson Peter Smerdon says that the situation for the organization in these rebel-held areas has been deteriorating for months.
"This disruption, this suspension of WFP's work in southern Somalia has been brought about by security threats and unreasonable pressure on our operations," he said.
At specific issue is a list of 11 rules issued by al-Shabab in November for all NGOs working in its territory, including a ban against women workers and a demand for $20,000 every six months as a security fee.
Smerdon says events only went downhill from there.
"Then later in November, al-Shabab demanded that WFP stop bringing food into their areas, that our contractors stop working with us, and that we remove what food stocks we have in their areas by January 1, 2010," he said.
The statement issued November 25 by the militant group said that the WFP's provision of food rations had been "devastating to the agriculture industry in Somali and has greatly discouraged the Somali people from the agricultural trade." It dictated that all WFP food supplies in the area be bought locally.
Not affected by the WFP move will be northern Somalia, most of central Somalia, and the capital city Mogadishu, where alone the aid group supplies 80,000 meals daily. The WFP will also continue operations in the so-called Afgooye Corridor, the most concentrated displaced camp in the world and home to over half a million IDPs.
The U.S. government, the WFP's biggest donor, has placed strict restrictions on its WFP Somali contributions amid fears that some of the aid was falling into the hands of al-Shabab, designated by the U.S. a terrorist organization and considered to have links to al-Qaida.
The WFP has described the restrictions as effectively "breaking" the food supply line. Smerdon denied that its suspension of southern Somalia operations was related at all to donor-expressed concerns, saying the action was purely a consequence of the unworkable situation created by the rebels.
Al-Shabab is waging an intense insurgency against the Western-backed Mogadishu government. The official administration is propped up by an African Union peacekeeping force known as AMISOM, which protects roughly ten blocks of the city encompassing the presidential palace as well as the air and sea ports.
The government has recently announced it is launching a new military offensive against the rebel groups, which control most of southern and some of central Somalia.