Somalia's hardline Islamists on Sunday invited international aid groups to regions under their control to assist thousands of hunger-stricken people.
"We are openly calling aid agencies to operate freely in the region in order to help thousands of people in the drought-hit areas of the country," al-Shabaab Islamic movement commander Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Abuu-Mansoor told reporters.
"We appreciate how they have assisted the people in the past and wish they continue doing the same," he added.
Aid workers have been frequently targeted by gunmen in the lawless Horn of Africa country, where up to 3.25 million people—almost half of its population—are in need of humanitarian aid.
Abuu-Mansoor condemned the abduction on March 15 of four United Nations aid workers in the city of Wajid, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) northwest of Mogadishu.
“There are some exaggerations released by some biased media which says that al-Shabab targets foreign aid workers helping the starving Somalis; that is null and void. We don’t actually do that,” Abuu-Mansoor said.
The World Food Program has offices in Wajid, a major food distribution center for the region.
There are some exaggerations released by some biased media which says that al-Shabab targets foreign aid workers helping the starving Somalis; that is null and void. We don’t actually do that
Al-Shabab commander Sheikh Abuu-Mansoor
Jobs with U.N. agencies are highly sought after in the impoverished country and recruitment is often a source of tension, with local clans and sub-clans demanding equal shares.
Kidnappings of foreign aid workers and journalists by ransom-seeking armed groups are frequent in conflict-wracked Somalia.
U.N. agencies attempting to deliver food aid have been repeatedly targeted. and four WFP employees have been killed since August last year.
Two elderly Italian nuns kidnapped on the Kenyan side of the border in November were recently released after being held for three months and a foreign mine worker abducted in Puntland was also freed last month.
Still held hostage
There is still no word from a Canadian journalist and an Australian photographer abducted last August, although a Somali journalist and two drivers taken with them were released in January.
A tribal chief negotiating their release said in September the kidnap gang wanted a ransom of $2.5 million.
Four aid workers employed by the French NGO Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger) and their two Kenyan pilots have been held hostage in Somalia since November.