U.N. agency halts food aid in southern Somalia

A million people in southern Somalia risk starvation after the World Food Program on Tuesday suspended humanitarian aid because of attacks and threats by Al Qaeda-linked Islamic rebels.

“Rising threats and attacks on humanitarian operations, as well as the imposition of a string of unacceptable demands from armed groups, have made it virtually impossible for WFP to continue reaching up to 1 million people in need in southern Somalia,” the United Nations organization said in a statement.

The World Food Program has evacuated staff members, equipment and food aid from the south to central Somalia.

The shutdown is one of the group’s largest retreats in years, meaning its food aid may reach only 1.8 million people instead of its target of 2.8 million.

The militant Islamic group Shabab, which has taken control of much of the country’s south, last year gave the World Food Program a deadline of Jan. 1 to leave. The agency says farmers can’t provide the food required to feed the million hungry Somalis in the south.

“WFP is deeply concerned about rising hunger and suffering among the most vulnerable due to these unprecedented and inhumane attacks on purely humanitarian operations,” the agency’s statement said.

The organization said it was ready to provide food aid to refugees who moved north because of hunger.

Shabab has threatened human rights activists, journalists and aid workers in recent months. Some have been kidnapped, others shot.

The insurgents have looted several World Food Program compounds in the south in recent weeks and have issued a series of demands to the agency, including the removal of female staffers from their positions and regular payments of $20,000 for protection.

Last month, a World Food Program security officer was shot dead in the town of Beledweyne, near the Ethiopian border.

Shabab aims to introduce Taliban-style Islamic law throughout the country and has stoned numerous people it had accused of adultery. Other people have been flogged publicly. One of those stoned to death was a mentally disturbed 13-year-old girl who had been raped by three armed men, according to an aunt who was interviewed by the BBC.

In areas the militant group controls, music is not allowed, cinemas have closed down and women are forced to wear hijabs covering their bodies from head to toe.

Somalia has been in almost-constant civil war since 1991, despite many efforts to stabilize it and establish a government. In recent years, it’s become a hub for pirates who attack ships off the Horn of Africa, collecting millions each year in ransoms.

The only solution to the piracy problem, most analysts say, is to stabilize the country and establish a functioning government.

The Western-backed interim government in Mogadishu has no authority beyond a few key neighborhoods in the capital.

In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union -- an Islamic group that ran the country’s court system -- won control of the capital and other parts of the country, briefly restoring order. Six months later, an interim government took power with the support of Ethiopian and African Union forces.

Shabab is one of several Islamic groups that arose from the Islamic Courts Union.

“Staff safety is a key concern for WFP, and recent attacks, threats, harassment and demands for payments by armed groups have decimated the humanitarian food lifeline,” the U.N. agency statement said.