July 21, 2009 / 5:08 PM / 10 years ago

U.N. not backing away from Somalia: top aid official

* John Holmes says U.N. aid work to carry on after looting

* Says U.N. in dialogue with militants to explain vital work

* Agencies say fighting makes aid delivery more difficult

* WFP feeding 3.5 million people in Horn of Africa country
(Recasts after John Holmes press conference)

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, July 21 (Reuters) - The United Nations’ top humanitarian official vowed on Tuesday that U.N. aid workers were "not backing away" from Somalia despite threats and looting by al Qaeda-linked militants.

Intense fighting is making it increasingly difficult to deliver aid in the Horn of Africa country, where U.N. agencies are trying to combat cholera outbreaks and maintain food supplies to 3.5 million hungry people.

Some 223,000 people are estimated to have fled Mogadishu since May 7, when fighting erupted between government troops and al Shabaab militants who control much of southern Somalia and parts of the capital.

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said that operations had been temporarily halted in the south-central town of Baidoa after al Shabaab gunmen looted the U.N. compound there on Monday along with a compound in Wajid. The militants said they would shut down three U.N. agencies working in the country. [ID:nLK96737]

"We’ve obviously had to stop operations in Baidoa where the compound was attacked and looted yesterday. So we simply cannot continue there at least until we can replace that equipment," Holmes told a news briefing after meeting donors in Geneva.

"We’re not backing away from Somalia more widely and we hope to continue operations there despite all these difficulties."



NEEDS "MASSIVE AND GROWING"

In an interview, Holmes later said that the world body was trying to counter the militants’ claims that some U.N. agencies were working against Somali Muslims and the establishment of an Islamic state based on sharia law.

"We certainly have had a dialogue with the local representatives of al Shabaab in different places to try to explain what we are doing and why and how we don’t have any political or security agenda," Holmes told Reuters.

"That’s the kind of dialogue we will continue to have in the future to persuade all concerned that we should be allowed to continue the work because the needs there are massive and growing," he said.

Earlier, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that intense fighting was slowing aid delivery in Somalia, "exacerbating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises."

Sweltering makeshift sites on the Afgooye corridor, southwest of Mogadishu, now hold a total of 400,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).

"These IDPs are packed in a congested strip of land with little or no basic facilities," spokesman Ron Redmond said.

More than 43,000 cases of acute watery diarrhoea have been reported in Somalia between January and June and were "treated as suspected cholera cases", World Health Organisation spokesman Paul Garwood told Reuters.

At least 135 people are known to have died of acute watery diarrhoea in that period, he said. Cholera has been confirmed in Mogadishu, the Afgooye corridor and several areas in Lower Jubba, Lower Shabelle, Bay and Mudug in south central Somalia.

"At the moment, it has been brought under control and contained. But the fear is this can explode if funding support is not provided," Garwood said.

The World Food Programme said its operations continued in Somalia despite gunmen entering its Wajid compound in the Bakool region on Monday.

"WFP has managed to maintain our supply lines to hungry people in Somalia, overcoming obstacles that range from piracy on the seas off the coast to insecurity and attacks on our staff on the ground," WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella told reporters.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)



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