Growing Violence in Somali Region Forces Aid Workers Out
Growing Violence in Somali Region Forces Aid Workers Out

Two aid agencies operating in southern Somalia say deteriorating security in recent days has forced them to withdraw their international and local staff from key towns in the Jubba regions. 

The regional spokesman for the United Nations' World Food Program, Peter Smerdon, tells VOA that the agency was forced to withdraw five local staff members from the town of Afmadow in Lower Jubba on Saturday.  

Smerdon says the move follows the evacuation of six WFP international workers from the town of Buale in Middle Jubba nine days ago.  Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision, also flew out six members of its staff in Buale on the same day.

"In Afmadow, it was clashes between Islamist groups.  In Buale, it was because of security concerns, which I cannot go into," he said.

WFP and World Vision are two of only a handful of international aid agencies operating in Somalia's southern regions.  The United Nations says the evacuation of WFP staff is yet another blow to a country, where a third of its population, more than three-and-a-half million people, need urgent food aid.      

On Saturday, Somalia's al-Shabab militants took control of Afmadow after clashes with factions of an Islamist group called Hizbul Islam.  Residents there say at least 12 people were killed. Hundreds of families have reportedly fled, fearing more violence between the rival Islamist groups.

Hizbul Islam and al-Shabab had formed an alliance earlier in the year to oppose Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional federal government.  The two Islamist groups controlled much of southern Somalia, while they jointly fought to keep the government from wielding any power outside of a small area in the Somali capital Mogadishu.

But in October, two clan-based factions of Hizbul Islam declared war on al-Shabab in a power struggle over the the southern city of Kismayo.  Since then, they have been fighting for control of the entire Jubba Valley.

On Tuesday, the leader of Hizbul Islam, Hassan Dahir Aweys, broke months of silence by speaking to reporters outside Mogadishu.  He urged both Islamist groups to lay down their weapons and resolve their differences through the Islamic courts.

Aweys says he is concerned and distressed that two allies cannot solve disputes without resorting to violence.  He says al-Shabab should agree to use Islamic law, not guns, to resolve the conflict. 

Al-Shabab is believed to be a proxy for al-Qaida in Somalia and is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and Australia.

Analysts say Aweys may be in a difficult position because although he is the leader of Hizbul Islam, he holds little sway over the clan-based Islamists fighting against al-Shabab in the Jubba regions.