Help Somalis, aid groups urge nations

Relief agencies call for international help for Somalis, saying the civil war has created a huge humanitarian crisis.

A Somali man and his family flee from Holwadag neighbourhood in Mogadishu on September 23, 2008 during a lull in fighting in which at least 29 civilians were killed and more than 60 wounded in a fresh round of mortar exchanges between Islamist insurgents and African Union peacekeepers in central Mogadishu, Monday, one of the deadliest series of incidents in months. The insurgents attacked the Ugandan troops' bases in the K4 and Jazeera areas at around midnight, drawing retaliatory fire from the peacekeepers. AFP PHOTO/Mustafa ABDI
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NAIROBI // As the international community rushed to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia to protect global economic interests, the world largely ignored the humanitarian crisis on the ground, aid organisations said this week. In a joint statement released by 52 relief organisations working in Somalia, the organisations said increased fighting in urban areas of Somalia have left more than three million people - half the population - in need of aid. This is an increase of 77 per cent since the beginning of the year when insurgents stepped up attacks on government forces.

"The international community has completely failed Somali civilians," said the statement from the group of aid organisations including CARE and International Rescue Committee. "We call on the international community to make the protection of Somali civilians a top priority now." By contrast, a recent scourge of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia has drawn a quick response from the international community. Millions of dollars have been lost as the shipping industry has had to deal with the hijacking of one of the most important shipping lanes in the world - through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

Pirates have captured more than 50 ships this year, including vessels carrying food aid for Somalis. After a ship carrying tanks and ammunition was hijacked last month, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution to use international military force to patrol Somalia's waters. Sugule Ali, the spokesman for the pirates who seized the weapons-laden Ukrainian ship, the MV Faina, said yesterday the crew was holding up well but warned against using force to try to resolve the situation. "We will cause a lot of problems for the world if they insist on fighting us," he said. Almost 18 years of civil war and no central government have turned Somalia into one of the worst disasters in the world. The crisis has recently escalated to its most critical since the war began due to drought and rising food prices. "What is most shocking is the speed that the humanitarian crisis has deteriorated," said Cindy Holleman, technical adviser to Food Security Analysis Unit of Somalia (FSAU), a UN-funded programme. "The civil insecurity is probably the worst it's been since the early 90s. It's having a wider impact on the economic crisis." The FSAU recently issued a report on the food crisis in Somalia saying 3.2m Somalis need food aid, up from 1.8m last year. Malnutrition rates are at 15 per cent to 20 per cent, well above emergency levels. Food prices have gone up nearly seven-fold within the last year, the report said. Somalia has been in a constant state of anarchy since 1991, when Siad Barre, the country's leader, was overthrown by clan-based warlords. Rival clans fought each other for control of the country, dividing Somalia into fiefdoms run by different warlords. In 2006 an Islamic group briefly came to power but was ousted by Somali troops backed by Ethiopian forces. The ousted Islamists have fought a deadly insurgency against Somalia's transitional government for 18 months, displacing almost 1m people. At least 20 people were killed this week after shells were fired at the main market in Mogadishu, the capital. Islamist insurgents fired mortars at the presidential palace, and government troops and their Ethiopian allies responded by shelling a busy market thought to be a stronghold of the insurgents. Compounding the problem in Somalia is the lack of access for humanitarian workers. At least 23 aid workers have been killed in Somalia this year and another 18 kidnapped. "All parties to the conflict have a responsibility to ensure that the millions of Somalis in need of emergency aid have access to it," said Robert Maletta, a policy adviser for Oxfam International. "Those parties that block access and assistance delivery must be held accountable." Despite the insecurity and calls for peacekeepers, the international community has been reluctant to send troops. American and UN troops pulled out of the country in the early 1990s after suffering heavy casualties, and an African Union peacekeeping mission in the country is underfunded and frequently under siege. Peter Smerdon, a World Food Programme spokesman, said it is not surprising the international community prioritised the fight against piracy. "It's easy to fight at sea. On land, it's a lot trickier," he said.