Somalia’s al-Shabaab rebels have kicked out the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from areas that it controls in the south and central parts of the country, the rebels said on Monday.
“The International Committee of the Red Cross has repeatedly betrayed the trust conferred on it by the local population and, in the recent weeks, falsely accused the Mujahideen (Shabaab fighters) of hindering food distribution,” al-Shabaab said in a statement.
Hardline Shabaab militants control large parts of south and central Somalia, a region the United Nations says is in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with three areas hit by famine and nearly 250,000 people facing starvation.
The ICRC had already suspended food aid to 1.1 million people in southern and central Somalia earlier this month due to obstruction by local militia, including in Shabaab-controlled regions.
The aid suspended included food as well as seeds for farmers, and was intended to be given to the thousands struggling from years of war and the impact of a devastating drought that has ravaged Somalia since October 2010.
However, the ICRC had continued to provide emergency aid including supporting health programs and providing clean water.
But the Shabaab said the ICRC had “betrayed the trust” of the insurgents, and said it had set fire to “nearly 2,000 metric tons of expired ICRC rations intended for distribution.”
The ICRC is one of the largest providers of emergency aid in Somalia and was one of very few international aid agencies still operating in areas controlled by the extremist Shabaab. It is still operating elsewhere in Somalia.
Somalia, ravaged by nearly uninterrupted civil war for the past two decades, is one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers and one of the regions that needs them most.
In November, the Shabaab ordered shut 16 U.N. and other international aid agencies after raiding several of their offices, banning organizations it deemed “engaged in activities deemed detrimental to the attainment of an Islamic state.”
Those raids left just a handful of aid agencies able to operate in rebel-held areas, including the now-banned ICRC and Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders).
Armies from neighboring countries are converging on the Shabaab, with Kenyan troops crossing into Somalia from the far south in October, and Ethiopian troops marching in from the south and west in November.
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has some 10,000 troops -- from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti -- in the Somali capital Mogadishu to protect the fragile Western-backed Somali government.