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UN stops Somalia food aid after gunmen seize official

By Steve Bloomfield

Dozens of Somali government troops have seized a senior United Nations official in Mogadishu in the latest attack on humanitarian workers in the war-torn Horn of Africa country, prompting the UN food agency to suspend aid distribution in the capital.

Idris Osman, the head of the World Food Programme's operations in Mogadishu, was being held in a police cell last night after 50 to 60 heavily armed security officials, including men in uniform, stormed a UN compound and demanded his arrest.

Somali officials refused to give details of why Mr Osman was arrested. General Mohamed Darwish, the head of the Somali National Security Service, said the UN would be informed of the reasons in an official letter. The WFP said it had not received any explanation for the arrest, which, it said, "violates international law".

The WFP was forced to suspend the distribution of food to more than 75,000 people – a programme that had only begun on Monday and had been approved by the Mayor of Mogadishu.

In a confidential letter to the Foreign Minister, the UN's senior humanitarian official, Christian Balslev-Olesen, warned the Somali government that the UN would consider suspending all its activities in Somalia in light of the "inexcusable violations".

The attack on the UN compound comes amid a power struggle between Somalia's President, Abdullahi Yusuf, and his Prime Minister, Mohamed Ali Gedi.

MPs at the parliament in the town of Baidoa are debating a vote of no-confidence in Mr Gedi, who has flown to Ethiopia, possibly, some diplomats say, for his own safety if he is ousted.

The arrest of Mr Osman is the latest in a series of attacks on humanitarian workers in Mogadishu. Since Ethiopian troops drove out the Union of Islamic Courts at the end of December, violence in the capital has increased dramatically with insurgents engaging Ethiopian and Somali government troops almost daily.

Civilians are, unsurprisingly, caught in the middle. and thousands have been killed this year. Mogadishu's two main hospitals, Medina and Kisani, received more than 2,000 patients last year who were victims of gunfire or mortar attacks. So far this year the number is 3,300.

Ken Menkhaus, a political science professor at Davidson College in the US and a Somalia expert, said the security situation in Mogadishu has been deteriorating since Ethiopian troops took control of the city in January.

"There has been a very clear spiral of violence of all sorts – insurgency, counter-insurgency and violent crime," he said. "This is an absolute disaster. It is creating a humanitarian crisis that has the international aid community extremely worried."

Most humanitarian operations in Somalia are coordinated from the safety of Kenya's capital, Nairobi. "Aid agencies have been facing a climate of fear in Somalia for months," said one official based in Nairobi.

Clan politics, as ever in Somalia, are playing a part. Mr Yusuf is a leading figure in the Darod clan, while Mr Gedi is a member of the Hawiye, which has long controlled Mogadishu.

A national reconciliation conference in Mogadishu in July and August failed to bring about any significant changes, mainly because of its failure to include main opposition figures. "Shaking hands with yourself is not a peace conference," said Professor Menkhaus.

A coalition of former Islamic Courts figures and opposition leaders instead met in Asmara, the capital of Ethiopia's enemy Eritrea, where they formed a new opposition group, the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS).

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