Al-Shabaab attacks target aid workers and refugees

Mahmoud Mohamed in Mogadishu contributed to this report

January 25, 2012

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Recent attacks targeting camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mogadishu have sparked concerns about the impact of violence on relief efforts and on the livelihood of thousands of Somalis fleeing areas controlled by al-Shabaab.

  • A Somali security officer stands guard at a camp for internally displaced persons in Mogadishu on January 19th. [Tony Karumba/AFP]

    A Somali security officer stands guard at a camp for internally displaced persons in Mogadishu on January 19th. [Tony Karumba/AFP]

At least nine refugees -- most of them women and children -- were reportedly killed Sunday (January 22nd) after several shells fell on the Siliga refugee camp located to the south of Mogadishu, following an attack by militants against a checkpoint manned by government forces near the camp.

An explosion rocked a police checkpoint at the camp January 19th, shortly after United Nations personnel and international journalists visited a site where food was being distributed to refugees six months after famine was declared in Somalia. According to news reports and witnesses, the blast killed six and injured five people.

Also on January 19th, clashes between al-Shabaab fighters and joint forces from the Somali Transitional Federal Government and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) near the Badbaado camp, one of the largest refugee camps in the capital housing tens of thousands of displaced families, led to several injuries among the refugees.

According to media reports, the clashes near the Badbaado camp occurred minutes after officials from United Nations relief organisations and a group of foreign journalists left the camp. The UN officials and journalists were visiting the camp to inspect the food distribution process to displaced persons.

International aid organisations and the Somali government have condemned the attacks at IDP camps and against relief workers.

Deputy Minister of Information Beleh Nour Abdullahi condemned the "desperate" attacks against "soft targets as well as the targeting of innocent victims, especially refugees".

Saadiya Maou, who lives in the Siliga camp, told Sabahi, "Displaced people are very worried that foreign relief workers who have come to help them are being targeted."

Ahmed Abdullahi, who works for a local non-governmental organisation that contracts with the UN World Food Programme, said al-Shabaab, which still controls parts of central and southern Somalia, is one of the main impediments to humanitarian efforts to reach those in need. He said the number of individuals receiving food subsistence dropped 21% in December due to the direct impact of al-Shabaab's ban on international relief agencies.

"There is no doubt that targeting relief workers hinders humanitarian efforts and basic provisions reaching those in need," Abdullahi told Sabahi. "This stands in the way of providing life-saving projects."

Al-Shabaab banned 16 aid organisations from operating in Somalia last November, in a move widely condemned by Somali officials and relief workers.

"I am extremely saddened but not surprised by al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda's merciless announcement to stop the work of humanitarian organisations providing much needed assistance to millions of Somalis at a time when the country is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis," Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed said November 29th, one day after armed al-Shabaab fighters raided several aid offices.

Al-Shabaab said it banned the international aid agencies for engaging in "activities deemed detrimental to the attainment of an Islamic state".

Thousands of lives at risk

Relief workers warned that the ban puts tens of thousands of women and children at risk.

After the ban, only a handful of relief organisations remained in areas under al-Shabaab control, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

However, continued targeting of relief workers prompted some international relief agencies to downsize their operations due to the deteriorating security situation. MSF announced on January 19th it was shutting down half of its operations in Mogadishu after two of its foreign staff members were killed last December.

"It is hard to close health services in a location where the presence of our medical teams is genuinely life-saving every day," the organisation's director Christopher Stokes said in a statement.

According to a December 2011 report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 1.5 million people are displaced in Somalia due to conflict between al-Shabaab and forces allied with the Somali government.

Many displaced persons have fled rural areas that were under al-Shabaab's control. They are often housed in overpopulated makeshift shelters in Mogadishu, which was recently freed from al-Shabaab control, and many are in dire need food, clean water, lavatories, health care, education, and protection.

Local relief officials said al-Shabaab's blockade of supply routes has exacerbated the situation in areas still under the organisation's control.

"We are extremely concerned about what is happening in Kismayo," Abdullahi Shirwa, head of Somalia's National Disaster Management Agency, said in December according to IRIN News. "Al-Shabaab has blocked any attempt to bring supplies by road while the bombing of the airport and the near-closure of the port has contributed to the severe shortage of food in the city."

Somalia is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for aid workers.

Despite the latest attacks, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Somalia Augustine Mahiga announced the re-opening of UN Political Office for Somalia in Mogadishu on Tuesday after a 17-year absence.

"Being in Mogadishu will allow us to work far more closely with the Transitional Federal Institutions, the UN agencies and non-governmental organisations already based here, civil society and ordinary Somalis," Mahiga said, expressing hope that the move "will mark the start of renewed hope for the future of Somalia".

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Reader's Comments

  • Garaad
    March 25, 2012 @ 06:19:38PM

    What was the sin of the thousands of people who lost their lives and who will bear their guilt, we know that they did not receive any aid and it is because the al-Shabaab group is controlling these regions and they did not allow aid to go through.

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