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US to aid groups: Feed the starving, even if Al Qaeda gets collateral benefits

Many aid organizations pulled out of Somalia after Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab took over much of the country, partly due to concerns that US officials would prosecute them for aiding the enemy.

By Staff writer / August 2, 2011

Four-year-old Said Nor, a malnourished boy from southern Somalia, sits in a refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, on July 28. The World Food Program says it cannot reach 2.2 million people in need of aid in the Al Shabab-controlled areas in southern Somalia.

Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP

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Washington

Putting the needs of millions of starving Somalis above terrorism concerns, the United States moved Tuesday to reassure international aid organizations that they will not face prosecution under US law if humanitarian assistance falls into the hands of US-listed terrorist groups.

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The threat of mass starvation is so great, particularly in parts of central and southern Somalia controlled by the Al Qaeda-affiliated organization Al Shabab, that saving lives must come before following the letter of anti-terrorist regulations, said officials from the State Department, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Treasury Department.

Humanitarian aid to southern Somalia largely dried up after Al Shabab took control of the region, and aid groups found themselves threatened by extremists on the ground and prosecution in the US, under Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

“We are working to reassure humanitarian assistance organizations that making a good-faith effort to help people in need will not result in prosecution,” said a senior administration official who spoke on a conference call with reporters on condition of anonymity. “I think there is some risk of diversion” of aid and funds to terrorist elements, the official added, “but the dimensions of this crisis are such that we have to put assistance first.”

The US will issue new guidelines over the coming weeks for organizations working in famine-stricken areas controlled by terrorist organizations, the officials said, but the federal government wants to assure groups in the meantime that they needn’t fear legal repercussions for administering aid.

The United Nations said Tuesday that it now expects famine conditions to spread over the coming month throughout all of southern Somalia, the hardest-hit region of the country, where nearly 3 million people are already at risk of starvation.

In all, the UN estimates that more than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa need food assistance, with Somalia the ground zero of the region’s drought-and-upheaval-induced crisis. So many Somali children face imminent starvation – more than 1 million by some estimates – that some officials are calling this “the children’s famine.”

Yet international humanitarian assistance organizations by and large pulled out of southern Somalia in January 2010, after Al Shabab took control of the region. The organizations faced heightened security risks as they came increasingly in contact with the extremist group’s anti-Western followers. Moreover, if they paid tolls and “taxes” for passage into Al Shabab-controlled territory, they faced prosecution under OFAC sanctions.

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