- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2010

UNITED NATIONS | Up to half the food aid intended for the millions of hungry people in Somalia is being diverted to corrupt contractors, radical Islamic militants and local U.N. workers, according to a U.N. Security Council report.

The report blames the problem on improper food distribution in the Horn of Africa nation, which has been beset by fighting and humanitarian suffering for nearly two decades, according to a U.N. diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report has not been released.

Transporters in Somalia must truck bags of food through roadblocks manned by a bewildering array of militias, insurgents and bandits. Kidnappings and executions are common, and the insecurity makes it difficult for senior U.N. officials to travel to the country to check on procedures. Investigators could end up relying on the same people they are probing to provide protection.

The U.N. diplomat said “a significant diversion” of food delivered by the U.N. food program is being diverted to cartels that are selling it illegally.

The findings of the report were first reported by the New York Times on Tuesday.

Some 3.7 million people in Somalia — nearly half of the population — need aid. Earlier this year, the country’s main extremist Islamic group said it would prohibit the U.N. World Food Program from distributing food in areas under its control because it says the food undercuts farmers selling recently harvested crops.

The group, al-Shabab, also accused the agency of handing out food unfit for human consumption and of secretly supporting “apostates,” or those who have renounced Islam.

The New York Times said the U.N. report recommends Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon open an independent investigation into the World Food Program’s Somalia operations.

The U.N.’s ability to conduct investigations was severely damaged in 2009 when it shut down its special anti-corruption unit, the Procurement Task Force. The unit was established in 2006, but investigations are now conducted by the Office of Internal Oversight Services’ permanent investigation division.

A Nairobi-based spokesman for the World Food Program had said previously that internal investigations showed between 2 percent and 10 percent of aid was being sold.

The U.S. reduced its funding to Somalia last year after the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control began to suspect aid could be diverted to al-Shabab, which the State Department says has links to al Qaeda.

The report also found regional Somali authorities to be collaborating with pirates and says that government ministers have auctioned off diplomatic visas, the Times said.

Finance Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman denied the charge.

“We don’t sell visas. That is not true,” he said, adding that the Somali government would investigate the allegations of diverted food aid.

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