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Somalia bans foreign aid workers from rebel areas

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By Abdi Sheikh and Mohamed Ahmed

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia has banned foreign aid workers and journalists from entering areas controlled by al Shabaab insurgents after members of a Turkish charity took food to famine victims in an area under the Islamist group.

Nearly all aid agencies have already barred their expatriate workers from operating in Somalia as famine grips the country, due to the risk of kidnapping as the hard-line militants linked to al Qaeda control most of the southern part of the country after retreating from the capital.

However, Somali security forces briefly detained two Turks on Tuesday who went to an al Shabaab area to deliver food to famine victims, and prevented others along with a group of journalists from doing so later in the week.

"We want the starving Somalis in al Shabaab areas to be fed but we do not want the foreign workers to meet al Shabaab," Mogadishu's mayor and governor Mohamud Ahmed Nur told Reuters.

"Let the foreign aid workers hand over the relief food to the local NGOs, which can deliver to the drought victims in al Shabaab areas. The government is responsible for the security of foreign aid workers. We do not want them to be harmed. Why risk their lives?" he said late on Friday.

A large part of Somalia is experiencing famine, which the United Nations says has put 750,000 people at risk of starvation, with hundreds of Somalis dying each day.

Al Shabaab, which is hostile to any Western intervention, itself banned food aid last year in the areas it controls in southern Somalia and kicked many groups out, saying aid creates dependency.

Aid agencies say they have been unable to reach more than 2 million Somalis facing starvation in rebel-held territories. Some local aid agencies are allowed to deliver aid to these areas, but this is not enough for all those who need it.

The government blames the famine on al Shabaab, which it says has looted grain stores, extorted food and taxes from farmers and prevented starving people from reaching help.

On Thursday and Friday, police stopped aid workers and a group of journalists from visiting al Shabaab-controlled areas.

"Government police stopped four Turkish aid workers and five foreign journalists on Thursday and Friday," Mohamud Dahir Farah, government's coordinator for humanitarian affairs, told Reuters on Friday.

"The government is concerned about their security. Foreigners will not be allowed to go to al Shabaab areas till the top government officials give a go head signal," he added.

Kidnapping for ransom has become a major money-spinner in lawless Somalia, notably for pirates who plague the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes linking Europe to Africa and Asia.

But the capture of foreigners inside Somalia has become relatively rare since aid agencies pulled out their expatriate workers

(Writing by Abdi Sheikh; Editing by George Obulutsa and David Stamp)