Somalia’s government is holding up vital aid to tens of thousands of people as car bombs and street fighting brought the death toll to nearly 1,500 in less than a month, sending the country lurching towards catastrophe, it was warned.
Yesterday’s fighting came hours after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on warring sides to end the violence and allow humanitarian assistance to reach the needy.
The Somali government and its Ethiopian allies are trying to quash a growing Islamic insurgency but civilians are getting caught in the crossfire.
The UN says more than 320,000 of Mogadishu’s two million residents have fled since February, sending streams of people into squalid camps with little to eat, no shelter and disease spreading.
The country is suffering its worst humanitarian crisis in the war-ravaged country’s recent history, according to the UN
But the weak transitional government has been demanding to inspect all food and medical shipments, holding up potentially lifesaving aid, European and American officials warned in letters.
UN humanitarian chief John Holmes told reporters that representatives of his office and other UN agencies met in the southern town of Baidoa on Monday with a newly established Inter-Ministerial Committee set up by the transitional government to discuss the lack of humanitarian access and the lack of cooperation from the government.
He said insecurity, harassment of humanitarian staff at checkpoints in key locations, lack of access to strategic airstrips and recent administrative directives by the transitional government “have all greatly obstructed humanitarian efforts.”
The United Nations, the European Union and the US ambassador responsible for Somalia and Kenya have all appealed to Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi in letters over the past month to ease the demands, saying they were complicating the already difficult task of delivering aid to a violent and largely lawless country.
“The efforts of international agencies to come to the aid of these stricken people are being thwarted on the one hand by militia looting relief supplies, demanding ’taxes’ and violently threatening aid workers, and on the other by administrative obstacles imposed by the Transitional Federal Government,” the German ambassador to Kenya, writing on behalf of the European Union, said in an April 20 letter to Yusuf.
US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger wrote in an April 17 letter to Yusuf that the government should stop “halting distribution of food aid for unspecified inspections.”
He also said at least one government-appointed regional governor “required payment for the transit of relief goods on top of payments already made to militia checkpoints. These practices are unacceptable and undermine the legitimacy of your government.”
In an April 12 letter to Gedi, Graham Farmer, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, said soldiers at a military checkpoint outside Mogadishu turned back a World Food Programme shipment that would have benefited 32,000 people because the government had not given clearance.
The letters were provided by an aid official.
Somali Interior Minister Mohamed Mohamud Guled wrote in an April 9 letter to the United Nations’ World Food Programme that, “no food distribution can take place anywhere in Somalia without being inspected and approved by the government.”
He did not give a reason, but said last week that “it is our duty to monitor for security reasons all humanitarian aid.”
Somali officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Government inspections are not unheard of for aid agencies, but Somalia’s relatively new administration lacks the capacity to process the massive quantities of assistance.
Several large shipments of food have been turned back because there was no clearance from government, according to aid agencies and diplomats.
Mogadishu continued to burn yesterday, although Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he expected the insurgency in Mogadishu to be defeated with a week or two.
He also said casualty figures for civilians were inflated.
One car bomb went off yesterday outside the Ambassador Hotel, which is used as a base by Somali politicians, killing seven civilians were killed, witnesses said.
The other car bomb, a suspected suicide attack, exploded outside an Ethiopian military base after troops opened fire on a minibus that was speeding toward them, local resident Mayow Mohamed said.
Artillery fire and mortar shells also rained down on Mogadishu.
In total, 358 people have been killed and 680 wounded in the past seven days, according to a committee set up by Mogadishu’s dominant clan to assess the fighting.