UN aid agencies will not abandon Somalia despite insecurity, says official

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Despite the difficult operating environment in Somalia, marked by threats and violence against aid workers, the United Nations has no intention of abandoning its assistance to the country, a humanitarian official with the world body affirmed today.

Earlier this week the UN World Food Programme (WFP) suspended some of its food distributions in southern Somalia, stating that escalating attacks and unacceptable demands by armed groups had made it "virtually impossible" for the agency to continue its work.

Elisabeth Byrs of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told reporters in Geneva that several UN agencies are still operating in southern Somalia despite WFP's withdrawal.

She noted that it was true that, following incidents of extortion, looting, assaults and kidnapping against aid workers, there had been a steady reduction of humanitarian staff in southern Somalia for the last six months, and the suspension of WFP's programmes was the latest chapter in that story.

However, she added, other agencies were still working in the central south zone, albeit with difficulty.

"Discussions are also under way to determine whether and how other programmes, such as nutrition, could be adjusted to mitigate any potential negative effects in the area under suspension," said Ms. Byrs.

WFP's Emilia Casella said the agency hoped that the suspension of operations in southern Somalia would only be temporary.

Over the past year the number of people in need of assistance in Somalia has risen from 3.2 million to 3.8 million, well over half the total population, while nearly 1.2 million face an acute crisis of food and livelihood insecurity.

In addition, some 1.5 million people in the Horn of Africa nation that has been torn apart by factional fighting and without a functioning central government since 1991 are displaced owing to escalating violence and a worsening humanitarian situation.