The United Nations food agency, faced with killings and demands for money by Islamic militants, has suspended its food aid for a million impoverished people in southern Somalia.
The shutdown of food distribution in one of Somalia's most vulnerable regions in the midst of a crippling drought is the latest severe blow to a country that has endured war and chaos for almost 20 years. It's the biggest shutdown of aid in Somalia in many years.
About 40 per cent of Somalia's seven million people are in need of food assistance because of failed harvests in the war-torn country, the UN says. Of the 2.8 million people who need food aid, more than one-third will be deprived of regular rations as a result of the latest suspension. Most are women and children.
The Islamic radicals have been intimidating and harassing UN relief workers in southern Somalia, demanding "security" payments and insisting that women be barred from working on food aid.
"The security situation has been steadily deteriorating in Somalia for the past two years, but it's gotten worse in southern Somalia in the past few weeks," Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for the UN World Food Program, said in an interview from Nairobi.
"It was simply too dangerous for our staff to stay on the ground," he said. "Of course, we're extremely concerned for the people who live in the region."
With the suspension of WFP food distribution, the people of southern Somalia will have almost nowhere to turn. Many other aid agencies have already pulled out of the region because of kidnappings, killings and other attacks on their staff.
WFP said it is temporarily closing six of its offices in southern Somalia because of "escalating attacks" and "rising threats" from armed groups. The biggest threat is from the Islamic radicals known as al-Shabab (The Youth), the main insurgent group in Somalia, who are believed to be linked to al-Qaeda.
"WFP is deeply concerned about rising hunger and suffering among the most vulnerable, due to these unprecedented and inhumane attacks," the agency said.
"Recent attacks, threats, harassment and demands for payments by armed groups have decimated the humanitarian food lifeline, making it virtually impossible to reach up to one million women and children and other highly vulnerable people."
Even before the latest wave of attacks, 43 aid workers - including four WFP workers - have been killed in Somalia in the past two years, while many others have been attacked or kidnapped.
The situation grew worse in November when al-Shabab militants in southern Somalia issued a list of 11 rules for WFP to obey. It demanded $20,000 in payments every six months for "security." It banned the agency's female staff from any activity in the region, except for health work. It also banned any food donations from the United States. And in a bizarre twist, it demanded that the WFP must prohibit any ceremonies to mark Christmas, International Women's Day, and World AIDS Day.
The militants followed this with another decree, ordering a halt to all WFP food distribution in southern Somalia by Jan. 1 of this year.
That decision could trigger a flood of refugees fleeing the region in search of food. The WFP said it is putting stocks of relief supplies in key locations in case there is a flow of refugees to Kenya, Ethiopia or central Somalia.
In the past five years, crops in Somalia have been so poor that they have provided only about 30 per cent of the country's food needs, WFP says.
Fighting, meanwhile, continues in many regions of Somalia. At least 50 people reportedly died in fighting this week between the Islamic radicals and a pro-government militia in the town of Dusamareb in central Somalia. And at least 11 people died on Monday in heavy shelling and explosions in Mogadishu.