March 16, 2010 / 9:54 PM / 9 years ago

U.N. council wants probe of Somalia aid diversion

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Members of the U.N. Security Council want an outside investigation of charges of widespread diversion of U.N. aid to radical Islamist rebels in Somalia, Mexico’s U.N. envoy said on Tuesday.

Displaced Somali women jostle for food aid at a relief distribution center in southern Mogadishu, March 16, 2010. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

“There is a large consensus for the idea of an independent investigation that should be carried out,” Mexican Ambassador Claude Heller told reporters after a closed door meeting of the 15-nation Security Council.

A report submitted to a council committee by a U.N. panel of experts that monitors compliance with U.N. sanctions against Somalia and Eritrea said up to half the food aid for needy Somalis was being diverted to a network of corrupt contractors, al Shabaab militants and local U.N. staff.

It also said a Somali businessman linked to al Shabaab who likely received a ransom paid for kidnapped aid workers was a contractor for both the World Food Program (WFP) and the U.N. children’s fund, UNICEF, in Somalia.

Al Shabaab, which controls much of southern and central Somalia, has pledged loyalty to al Qaeda and wants to impose its own harsh version of sharia law throughout the country.

The 74-page report, seen by Reuters, outlines such serious problems that it recommends U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon open an independent investigation into the WFP’s operations in the lawless Horn of Africa nation, which has been without an effective government since 1991.

Heller, who chairs the Security Council’s Somalia/Eritrea sanctions committee, said his panel would also like to hear directly from the WFP, which has been conducting its own internal investigation of the allegations, and Somalia’s transitional government.

Heller made clear there was no doubt the investigation would take place, though he provided no details about its possible scope and timing. U.N. diplomats said on condition of anonymity the council would need to agree on certain key details before taking a decision to launch a formal inquiry.

WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said last week her agency “stands ready to offer full cooperation with any independent inquiry into its work in Somalia.”

The WFP suspended its work in much of southern Somalia in January because of threats against its staff and because al Shabaab was demanding payments for security.

A WFP spokeswoman in New York, Bettina Luescher, complained of numerous inaccuracies in the Monitoring Group’s report, on which she said the WFP had not been consulted.

Editing by Todd Eastham

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