NAIROBI (Reuters) - Every month, thousands of children in rebel-controlled southern Somalia depend on life-saving food aid.
But following the suspension of food distribution by the U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP), aid groups warned that many more children in the remote region are likely to suffer severe malnutrition.
Somalia has been blighted by two decades of conflict. A resurgence of fighting since early 2007 has killed 19,000 civilians and driven another 1.5 million from their homes. Half of the 7 million people living in the Horn of Africa nation need humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.
But the WFP said rising threats and attacks on humanitarian operations as well as the "imposition of a string of unacceptable demands" by Somali armed groups had hampered aid delivery.
The agency said on Tuesday it would temporarily close five of its offices.
Aid groups said the WFP's decision to suspend operations in the south could also put thousands of internally displaced people at risk.
Here is what aid workers said about how the move might impact Somalia's most vulnerable groups of people:
The food aid operations in southern Somalia, run by the WFP and Christian charity and partner World Vision, have been particularly been targeting children as they are a highly vulnerable group.
According to the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, one in five children under the age of five is acutely malnourished and more than 40 percent of children in Somalia show signs of chronic nutritional deprivation.
"If the food distribution chain is interrupted, we are likely to see malnutrition levels going up in southern Somalia immediately," said Rozanne Chorlton UNICEF's country representative for Somalia.
In November, the WFP and World Vision relocated 12 expatriate aid workers following a deterioration in the security situation in Buale.
World Vision said it had enough food stocks to feed nearly 6,000 children until March, but supplies will then run out.
"On our supplementary feeding program, we have 3,330 children in Middle Juba and 2,840 others in the Bakool region who will go without food aid when the stocks run out in March," said Amanda Koech, World Vision's spokeswoman for Somalia.
SITUATION OF IDPs
Buale and Wajid towns in Middle Juba region in southern Somalia house thousands of internally displaced families fleeing fighting in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
Thousands of refugees find their way across the border to Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp - one of the biggest in Africa. Aid workers said the WFP's decision to suspend operations could worsen the already desperate plight of some IDPs.
"If no quick intervention is made, these IDPs will face starvation," said World Vision's Koech.
The number of refugees fleeing Somalia hit a three-year high in 2009.
The U.N. has launched a consolidated appeal for $690 million to help the huge numbers of Somalis trapped in seemingly endless fighting between rebel groups and the Somali Transitional Federal Government.
But previous appeals like these have failed to raise the amounts needed because the U.S. government has withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in aid in fear that it would end in rebel's hands.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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