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Conflict Zone Slows Aid For Somalia's Famine Victims

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U.S. officials are sounding increasingly frustrated that they and other big donors can’t mount the kind of humanitarian operation that is needed in Somalia. Violence in Mogadishu this week is just the latest of their troubles.

Aid work is never easy, but the troubles add up quickly in a conflict zone like Somalia, says Assistant Secretary of State Eric Schwartz.

“The delivery of humanitarian assistance, as complicated as it is under the best of circumstances, gets enormously more complicated when you’re dealing with issues of conflict,” Schwartz says. “Not only in terms of the basic threats to the humanitarian assistance providers and to the recipients of aid, but also to the risk that food, then, becomes part of the currency of the conflict.”

Schwartz, who runs the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department, believes there are about 2 million Somalis simply out of reach to aid workers now. That’s because they live in parts of the country controlled by al-Shabaab, which is on a U.S. terrorism blacklist. Because of U.S. law, there are restrictions on U.S. humanitarian groups hoping to reach those people.

“We are particularly concerned, for example, about internal transportation, which has been subject to taxes and tariffs by al-Shabaab,” Schwartz says. “So there are certain restrictions under which U.S. organizations would have to operate, and what we are doing now is looking very aggressively at ways that we can better promote the ability of U.S. humanitarian organizations to provide such assistance.”

For now, the U.S. is funding UN agencies to see what they are able to do in south and central Somalia, and U.S. officials are negotiating with private American relief groups about easing U.S. restrictions, according to Jeremy Konyndyk of Mercy Corps, one of dozens of aid groups that al-Shabaab kicked out of Somalia last year.

“We’re seeing some signs that are encouraging, but we’re not there yet,” Konyndyk says.

Asked if the tone of the conversations had become more urgent since the UN declared famine, Konyndyk says that has helped focus people’s minds quite a bit.

Even as the U.S. tries to figure out ways to get aid into Somalia, it is also trying to step up financial pressure on al-Shabaab. On Friday, the Treasury Department added two members of the group to a sanctions list — Omar Hammami, who holds a U.S. passport, and Hassan Mahat Omar, who is Kenyan. Any bank accounts they may have in the US will be frozen.

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