MOGADISHU, Somalia — The Somali militant group al-Shabab on Monday banned 16 aid groups – including a half dozen U.N. agencies – from central and southern Somalia, a decision likely to harm Somalis already suffering from drought and famine.
The banning of the aid groups falls in line with the group's skeptical view of the outside world, but will worsen the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of Somalis who have come to depend on aid in the Horn of Africa country's worst famine since 1991-92.
A year without rain wiped out crops and animal herds in southern Somalia, killing tens of thousands of people the last six months and forcing tens of thousands more to flee as refugees.
The al-Qaida-linked militant group's decision seemed to be rooted in the belief that aid groups are serving as spies for outside countries or as vehicles to undermine support for al-Shabab's harsh and strict interpretation of Islam.
Witnesses in the towns of Beldweyne and Baidoa said armed, masked men entered aid offices Monday and seized equipment. The United Nations was preparing a statement in response to al-Shabab's closures but didn't have an immediate comment.
Al-Shabab said in long statement in English that a "meticulous yearlong review and investigation" had been carried out by what it said was a committee called the Office for Supervising the Affairs of Foreign Agencies. The committee documented in a report "the illicit activities and misconducts of some of the organizations."
Al-Shabab accused the 16 aid groups of disseminating information on the activities of Muslims and militant fighters, financing, aiding and abetting "subversive" groups seeking to destroy the basic tenants of the Islamic penal system, and of "persistently galvanizing the local population" against the full establishment of Shariah law, a harsh and punitive interpretation of Islam.
Al-Shabab carries out amputations, stonings and beheadings as punishment. The group also frequently recruits child fighters.
Because of its policies limiting the work of aid groups in its territory – especially the work of the World Food Program – areas under its control were declared famine zones by the U.N. in July. Some of those famine declarations have since been downgraded, but the U.N. says 250,000 still face the immediate risk of starvation.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday condemned al-Shabab for seizing property and equipment belonging to several non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies earlier in the day.
"This brazen act prevents these organizations from providing lifesaving assistance," Ban said in a statement released by his office. He demanded that al-Shabab "vacate the premises and return seized property to the affected agencies and NGOs."
Among the agencies al-Shabab banned on Monday were UNICEF, the World Health Organization, UNHCR, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Danish Refugee Council, German Agency For Technical Cooperation (GTZ), Action Contre la Faim, Solidarity, Saacid and Concern.
The al-Shabab statement accused the groups of misappropriating funds, collecting data, and working with "international bodies" to promote secularism, immorality and the "degrading values of democracy in an Islamic country."
Al-Shabab boasts several hundred foreign militants among its ranks, including veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and U.S. citizens. The foreign fighters are known to take hardline stances inside the group.
The group has been under increasing military pressure the last year. African Union forces in Mogadishu have mostly pushed the group out of the capital. Last month, Kenyan forces moved in, opening a second conflict on the group's southern flank. And earlier this month witnesses say Ethiopian troops moved in from the west, opening a third front.
Associated Press writer Anita Snow contributed to this report from the United Nations.