UN aid returns to Somalia

By Daniel Howden

The United Nations has ventured back into Islamist-controlled Somalia with aid deliveries in an effort to stem the daily tide of 3500 famine refugees pouring into neighbouring countries.

Humanitarian assistance was delivered at the weekend into central Somalia for the first time since UN operations halted 18 months ago after threats and extortion by the radical Islamic militia al-Shabaab.

The devastating drought and famine across the Horn of Africa has sent millions of the starving into camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. The international response has been hindered by the chaos in Somalia, where aid agencies have been kept out of al Shabaab-controlled regions.

However, the scale of the crisis has prompted the militia, which is fighting a war with the UN-backed Government, to relent and allow aid groups with "no hidden agenda".

The first shipment of high-nutrition biscuits and other food supplies from Unicef has been airlifted to Baidoa, 190km northwest of the capital Mogadishu.

"We're ready to work anywhere in Somalia, if we get unhindered access to reach the most vulnerable children," said Unicef's Rozanne Chorlton.

Al-Shabaab is aligned with al-Qaeda and is treated as a terrorist organisation by Western governments.

The severity of the drought in al-Shabaab areas has sent tens of thousands of people into war-torn Mogadishu, up to 2000 people a day into camps across the border in Ethiopia and 1500 people a day into camps in northern Kenya.

The UN's World Food Programme pulled out of the region last year citing inability to protect staff. But privately officials said the al-Shabaab militia was demanding "protection money".

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