ICRC wants food for Somalia but can't take U.N. aid

GENEVA/NAIROBI Thu Aug 4, 2011 6:26pm EDT

A newly arrived Somali refugee collects non-consumable welfare items from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) compound at Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border August 3, 2011. The United Nations estimates that more than 3.7 million people in Somalia, among them 800,000 children, are on the brink of starvation. The famine in the Horn of Africa is spreading and may soon engulf as many as six more regions of the lawless nation of Somalia, the U.N. humanitarian aid chief said. REUTERS/Daud Yussuf

A newly arrived Somali refugee collects non-consumable welfare items from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) compound at Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border August 3, 2011. The United Nations estimates that more than 3.7 million people in Somalia, among them 800,000 children, are on the brink of starvation. The famine in the Horn of Africa is spreading and may soon engulf as many as six more regions of the lawless nation of Somalia, the U.N. humanitarian aid chief said.

Credit: Reuters/Daud Yussuf

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GENEVA/NAIROBI (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) almost doubled its budget for Somali aid Thursday but said it would not be able to help U.N. food supplies get through to starving Somalis.

ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said his independent agency was boosting its emergency operation to help 1.1 million people in the famine-stricken country and was asking donors for an extra 67 million Swiss francs ($86 million) in 2011.

He said the ICRC had good access to southern Somalia, much of which is controlled by Islamist militants, with two supply routes through Somali ports and one overland from Kenya, but the humanitarian organization needed more supplies.

That contrasts with the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), which has the food but says it cannot reach more than two million Somalis in the worst-hit areas because the militant group al Shabaab has blocked access to most aid agencies.

"It's crucial that you can ensure access and have capacity to operate big food pipelines," Kellenberger told a news conference in Geneva.

He said the U.N. food agency normally used partner organizations to distribute its food aid, but it was very difficult for them to get access, and the ICRC would not distribute aid on behalf of other agencies.

"The ICRC is an independent agency, for reasons you'll understand, for its protection," said Kellenberger, a former senior Swiss diplomat.

"And I think that's important for its perception, for its personality, especially in delicate contexts like this. I have also to add that there would also be certain logistic problems."

The ICRC has not given al Shabaab any payment, taxes or concessions to get access, Kellenberger added.

EXPLORING ALL AVENUES

David Orr, a WFP spokesman in Nairobi, declined to respond to Kellenberger's comments specifically.

"WFP is exploring all avenues with all partners and exploring all channels to get access to those in need closest to the epicenter of the famine," Orr said.

Earlier this week, Washington relaxed the rules imposed on charities operating in al Shabaab-controlled regions in a bid to boost the amount of relief reaching those areas.

Bruce Wharton, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said Thursday it would be a mistake to second-guess whether some aid would inevitably end up in the hands of al Shabaab.

"What we would like is for all of the food assistance to go to the innocent people who are desperately in need and for none of it to go to al Shabaab. But I think that we all recognize that the imperative right now is to save lives," Wharton told a news conference by telephone from Washington.

An ICRC spokeswoman said the situation in southern Somalia was worsening, with more than 20 percent of children under five in an emergency condition because of severe acute malnutrition.

Caught between conflict and famine, hundreds of refugees are flooding into Mogadishu every day -- more than 100,000 people have arrived in the capital in the last two months -- only to stumble into a raging insurgency.

In the Badbaado camp, a city of makeshift shacks home to almost 30,000 displaced people outside Mogadishu, Kalthuma Hassan mourned her three children, all of whom had succumbed to malnutrition. The last died in her arms early Thursday.

"All those trucks of food have been parked here for days. They say they cannot distribute for security reasons. We cannot work it out -- maybe they want to sell the food after we die of hunger. I am afraid I will die before Ramadan ends," Hassan said, sobbing quietly.

"Foreign and local people visit you everyday. They take your photos, officials promise you food, medicine, but in fact we are just dying," she said.

Jon Brause, an official at the U.S. government's aid agency, said despite the easing of rules, it was still not safe for aid agencies to go into southern Somalia.

Kellenberger said the ICRC might be willing to accept U.N. food aid if really necessary.

"In the end the over-riding objective must be to help as many people as possible and whenever certain arrangements have to be made -- in a moment where if they were not made there would be losses in human terms -- I think certainly I would show a certain flexibility."

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu)

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