WASHINGTON — The Obama administration sought to assure aid groups Tuesday that they can deliver desperately needed food to famine-stricken parts of Somalia without fear of prosecution, even if some assistance is diverted to al-Qaida linked extremists blamed for helping deliver hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of starvation.
Administration officials said the U.S. has issued new guidelines on laws prohibiting material assistance to al-Shabab, which have been criticized by humanitarian organizations as a contributing factor the crisis. Charities must only pledge their best efforts to combat attempts by al-Shabab to hoard aid or collect taxes on supplies, they said.
"We're trying to ease the process for these organizations to get the proper licenses," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. Given the widespread violence and corruption in Somalia, he said the U.S. would exempt aid groups from some legal constraints that would hinder them from reaching malnourished or starving Somalis.
Drought has left some 12 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia needing help, though official famine zones are only in Somali areas controlled by al-Shabab. That has challenged aid groups because of al-Shabab's hostility to them and the perceived threat of American prosecution in cases of inadvertent support for a U.S.-designated terrorist body.
No U.S. law specifically prevents aid to southern and central Somalia, where the U.N. food agency says it cannot reach 2.2 million Somalis in areas under al-Shabab's control and fears that tens of thousands may have already perished. But bribes, tolls and other typical of costs of doing business in the largely lawless and chaotic country could have been punishable, even if extracted under coercion, after the State Department officially declared al-Shabab a terrorist organization in 2008.
Toner and other U.S. officials said the focus now should be on getting food to those in need as fast as possible. While some al-Shabab officials have suggested that relief groups are welcome to return, one official said it was unlikely that any "grand bargain" could be struck that would open up all of Somalia for operations with U.S. government-funded aid.
Targeted, piecemeal interventions are more likely, directed toward areas where the level of security and acquiescence of local authorities is deemed acceptable, suggested one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because plans haven't been finalized.
The shift could allow more U.S. aid to be directed toward the World Food Program's operations in Somalia. The U.N. said Tuesday that unless it sees a massive increase in donations, the famine will spread inside Somalia. It called for another $1.4 billion in support.
Toner said the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development could now provide grants and contracts to aid groups, which will be protected "in the event their operations may accidentally benefit al-Shabab." But he didn't lay out any concrete plans.
Somalia has been mired in conflict since 1991 when dictator Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords who then turned on each other. Islamist militants led by al-Shabab are trying to overthrow the weak U.N.-backed government that is being propped up by about 9,000 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi.