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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

U.S. relaxes sanctions to push aid to Somalia

By Paul Richter

Chicago Tribune
August 3, 2011
The Obama administration is intensifying efforts to deliver food to famine-stricken Somalia, easing restrictions on humanitarian aid groups so they will not be penalized if they inadvertently help al-Qaida-linked militants battling for power in the country.

With the worst famine in decades stirring worldwide alarm, the new rules are intended to provide "more flexibility and to allow a wider range of aid to a larger number of areas in need," a senior administration official said Tuesday.

A famine and drought threatens about 3 million people in the Horn of Africa, many in remote regions of southern Somalia. The United Nations estimates it will need $300 million in food, medicine and other supplies over the next few months to respond to the crisis.

Much of southern Somalia is controlled by al-Shabab, an Islamist extremist group designated in 2008 by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization. Under the law, anyone providing aid to al-Shabab may be subject to prosecution.

The U.S. designation caused some aid agencies to halt deliveries to southern Somalia for fear they could be charged with helping the militants, who have carried out suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians.

A U.N. report last month said al-Shabab extracts $70 million to $100 million a year in "taxes" from groups and companies delivering aid. In the Mogadishu region, for example, al-Shabab's "aid coordinator" charged aid groups about $90,000 apiece for a six-month pass to bring in supplies, the report said.

U.S. officials insisted Tuesday that humanitarian aid groups were never at risk of prosecution for helping starving people. They acknowledged, however, that U.S. efforts to ease the famine are likely to increase the plunder taken by al-Shabab.

"There is a risk there, quite honestly," said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. However, the official said, "We have decided it's worth some risk of diversion. ... The human need is compelling.".


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