Rebel U-turn to deprive starving of famine aid
Somalia's starving millions will remain largely beyond the reach of international help after a senior Islamist commander backtracked on a promise to allow foreign aid workers to return to his territory.
The retraction came as Unicef said that a child was dying every six minutes -- 250 a day -- in one of the famine-hit regions in Somalia.
Al-Shabaab, the pro al-Qa'ida insurgency, had said it was ready to welcome back charities that it banned last year.
But Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, the group's senior spokesman, last night said only agencies already operating in Somalia could stay, despite the threat of famine spreading to more than two million people.
Irish aid agencies Concern, Trocaire and GOAL are helping in Somalia. However, the ban means that the World Food Programme (WFP), Unicef and major British charities face further hurdles delivering food to those who need it most.
"We are not guaranteeing safety for any agency that was previously banned from working in areas under our control," he said in an interview in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital.
"Our message was mistranslated; the agencies we are calling to help the people are those who are in our areas now, but those banned previously -- including WFP and Unicef -- are not welcomed.
"We shall also expel any agency that causes problems for Muslim society."
The Red Cross and the Red Crescent Societies could remain, Mr Rage said, because "we think they remain impartial".
The UN said that two regions of southern Somalia this week tipped from a "humanitarian emergency" to a "famine", the first time that term had officially been used since almost a million Ethiopians died in 1984.
That declaration was "an exaggeration", Mr Rage said.
"The UN wants Somalia to be in famine, they want to put pressure on us through such calls," he said.
"We agree that there is hunger in some areas, but there is no famine in Somalia."
These claims rang hollow to the 500 families sheltering at the Waberi camp in the middle of Mogadishu.
They were among 20,000 people that the UN refugee agency said had arrived to Somalia's wrecked capital this month alone.
Nuriya Da'ud (31), from Bakool, said she had nowhere else to go.
"Al-Shabaab doesn't want us to go to Kenya or Ethiopia, they say that you are going to Christian countries for help and they deny your access to the border," she said.
Nearby sat Isha Osman (67), whose 76-year-old husband and four grandchildren died before she was forced to flee from Burhakaba town in Lower Shabelle to safety in Mogadishu.
"The children died for hunger, because we had nothing to give them, all we could give them were some tree leafs but they were poisonous and they died," she said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)