Somali militants hinder humanitarian aid

Islamist forces in Somalia have launched fresh attacks, worrying international aid groups.

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Fresh fighting between Islamist militants and government troops in Somalia could trigger a new phase of humanitarian crisis in war-torn Somalia and prompt the UN Security Council to consider peacekeeping operations.

International aid agencies warned on Wednesday that Somalia had become too dangerous for its workers to help more than a million civilians living in difficult conditions. Fresh fighting erupted near the capital of Mogadishu in clashes between Islamist fighters and Somali troops, Agence France-Presse reports.

Islamist fighters overwhelmed government troops and seized a key town in the latest in a series of successful raids, The New York Times reports.

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Thirty-nine aid organizations, including Oxfam, World Vision, and Save the Children, warned Wednesday of a possible humanitarian disaster ahead of a UN Security Council debate today on Somalia. The groups issued a similar warning in October 2007. The aid groups released a statement Wednesday, reports humanitarian website Reliefweb:

The aid agencies warned humanitarian relief efforts have been held back by the rising lawlessness and violence.

The US has been engaged in a long, low-profile struggle with Islamist forces in Somalia, reported The Christian Science Monitor. A March 3 missile strike against the southern Somali town of Dobley was aimed at preventing violent Islamist militants from taking root in Somalia and spreading through East Africa. Some observers are concerned such efforts could generate greater anti-US sentiment.

Islamist groups are regrouping in Somalia, some with more formal ties to Al Qaeda than in the past, says one security observer on the Counterterrorism Blog. The most important group, says Douglas Farah, is Al Shabab. Mr. Farah, citing a US State Department statement said:

Somalia has seen intermittent conflict since two separate colonies gained independence from Britain and Italy in 1960, uniting into one country. Historians say tribal and ethnic conflicts fought over access to resources, including water and pastoral country, once fought with bows and spears are now fought with AK-47s.

By 1993, the United Nations mounted a humanitarian operation in Somalia to stave off famine induced by civil war. An ill-fated US incursion into Mogadishu in October left 19 US soldiers dead the same year, according to "Black Hawk Down," a book and newspaper series by Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Mark Bowden and later a film of the same name.

Freelance warlords and Somalia's Islamists were routed out in late 2006 by an onslaught from neighboring Ethiopia with Somalian government forces, reported The Christian Science Monitor.

The campaign against Somalia's Islamists is a new phase in the wider struggle against armed militants. The campaign, however, may have added to tensions as many Somalians see the Ethiopia-allied forces as occupiers rather than liberators. The two countries, which have fought two wars in the last 45 years, have a longstanding rivalry. Ethiopia also has a large Christian population, whereas Somalia is mostly Muslim.

The UN Security Council is considering several options for stabilizing Somalia, the Voice of America reports. The options include sending another UN peacekeeping force to the country to take over from the current African Union force. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has laid out the options for the Security Council to mull in a new report on Somalia.

Senior UN peacekeeping officials, however, said they were concerned about sending peacekeepers into Somalia while the security situation is so unstable and the Transitional Federal Government is unable to maintain law and order. Edmond Mulet, the assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, said:

The report outlined four scenarios for future troop deployments in Somalia. Two included international troops, but only if certain conditions were met. One scenario included a stabilization force of about 8,000 troops and police with a phased withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Mogadishu. Another could see a political reconciliation involving powersharing among political parties and a peace agreement, including the deployment of more than 28,000 UN peacekeeping troops.

Currently, Mr. Ban is only recommending relocation of some UN staff from nearby Kenya to Mogadishu. Another proposal included setting up a Maritime Task Force, which would support efforts from France and Denmark to protect humanitarian aid ships from marauding sea pirates.

US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad, however, was quoted as saying that "we are not close to deploying the peacekeeping forces."

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