- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NAIROBI, Kenya — Aid workers and Somali residents expressed outrage after the militant group al-Shabab banned 16 aid groups from its territory, a decision that officials said puts tens of thousands of sick mothers and malnourished children at risk.

Tens of thousands of Somalis have died from drought- and famine-related causes this year, and the United Nations estimates that 250,000 people still face starvation in a country plagued by violence.

Somalis expressed sadness and anger at al-Shabab’s decision, one that could further damage a group that is highly unpopular in many Somali circles because of its strict social rules and harsh punishments such as amputations and stonings.

Al-Shabab on Monday ordered UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the Danish Refugee Council, among others, to leave.

“Without their help, our children will return to starvation and malnutrition,” said Ahmed Awnor, a community leader in Hiraan in west-central Somalia.

Aid groups warned of disaster if the ban stays in place.

UNICEF said thousands of children could die if its operations are stopped. UNICEF supports health centers treating tens of thousands of malnourished children, provides access to clean water and carries out vaccinations against measles.

“We are extremely concerned as any disruption to our assistance is like unplugging life support for many children, especially for the 160,000 severely malnourished children in south-central Somalia,” said Jaya Murthy of UNICEF Somalia.

Al-Shabab began banning aid groups including the World Food Program in 2009, though it allowed some to operate.

The militant force has long accused outside groups of spying and on Monday accused the 16 groups of misappropriating funds, collecting data, and promoting secularism, immorality and the “degrading values of democracy in an Islamic country.”

“It’s a disgusting decision. It will force us back to famine and misery again,” said Ahmed Khalif, a Somali elder in Baidoa town. “The difficult tasks the aid agencies have done to fight the famine are only half-done.”

Al-Shabab said it carried out a “meticulous yearlong review and investigation” that documented “the illicit activities and misconducts of some of the organizations.”

Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst with the International Crisis Group, said al-Shabab’s action could be motivated by “anger at the West’s acquiescence to Kenya’s intervention” in Somalia. Hundreds of Kenyan forces moved into Somalia last month to fight al-Shabab.

Mr. Abdi also said al-Shabab may have failed to extract the benefits and concessions it wanted from the agencies operating in areas under its control. The militants have been known to force aid groups to pay “taxes” or other fees.

The Danish Refugee Council said militants took over its offices in Belet Weyne and Bulo Burte in Hiraan region. The group called al-Shabab’s decision “a sad development” as Somalis are “in dire need of humanitarian aid due to drought and years of armed conflict.”

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