NAIROBI, Kenya — Aid workers and Somali residents expressed outrage Tuesday, a day after the militant group al-Shabab banned 16 aid groups from its territory, a decision officials said puts tens of thousands of sick mothers and malnourished children at risk.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have already died from drought and famine-related causes this year, and the U.N. estimates that 250,000 people still face starvation in a country plagued by violence.
Somalis expressed sadness and anger at al-Shabab's decision, one that could further damage a group highly unpopular in many Somali circles because of its strict social rules and harsh punishments like amputations and stonings.
Al-Shabab on Monday ordered UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the Danish Refugee Council, among others, to leave.
"Without their help, our children will return to starvation and malnutrition," said Ahmed Awnor, a community leader in Hiraan in west-central Somalia.
Aid groups warned of disaster if the ban stays in place. UNICEF said thousands of children could die if its operations are stopped. UNICEF supports health centers treating tens of thousands of malnourished children, provides access to clean water and carries out vaccinations against measles.
"We are extremely concerned as any disruption to our assistance is like unplugging life support for many children, especially for the 160,000 severely malnourished children in south-central Somalia," said Jaya Murthy of UNICEF Somalia.
Al-Shabab began banning aid groups like the World Food Program in 2009, though it allowed some to operate. The militant force has long accused outside groups of spying and on Monday accused the 16 groups of misappropriating funds, collecting data, and promoting secularism, immorality and the "degrading values of democracy in an Islamic country."
"It's a disgusting decision. It will force us back to famine and misery again," said Ahmed Khalif, a Somali elder in Baidoa town. "The difficult tasks the aid agencies have done to fight the famine are only half-done."
Al-Shabab said it carried out a "meticulous yearlong review and investigation" that documented "the illicit activities and misconducts of some of the organizations."
Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst with the International Crisis Group, said al-Shabab's action could be motivated by "anger at the West's acquiescence to Kenya's intervention" in Somalia. Hundreds of Kenyan forces moved into Somalia last month to fight al-Shabab.
Abdi also said al-Shabab may have failed to extract the benefits and concessions it wanted from the agencies operating in areas under its control. The militants have been known to force aid groups to pay "taxes" or other fees.
The Danish Refugee Council said militants took over its offices in Belet Weyne and Bulo Burte in Hiraan region. The group called al-Shabab's decision "a sad development" as Somalis are "in dire need of humanitarian aid due to drought and years of armed conflict." The group provides shelter, aid packages and daily meals for tens of thousands of internally displaced people in the capital, Mogadishu.
"The struggling people of Somalia need all the help they can get, therefore we hope and trust that we and the other organizations involved are soon again able to resume our humanitarian operations," said Ann Mary Olsen, the head of the council's international department.
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.
Murthy of UNICEF said his agency's office in Baidoa was occupied after the staff was ordered to leave. Although UNICEF has in the past few years weathered brief disruptions in Somalia, this is the first time it has to stop operations since its arrival in the early 1970s, he said.
The U.N. refugee agency says more than two-thirds of Somalia's estimated 1.46 million internally displaced people live in southern and central parts of the country – al-Shabab land – and humanitarian needs there are immense.
The World Health Organization supports eight hospitals and 16 mobile clinics that cater to tens of thousands of people in the affected regions. The ban "can undermine the fragile progress made this year, and could bring back famine conditions in several areas," said the WHO's Pieter Desloovere.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday condemned al-Shabab for seizing property and equipment belonging to the aid groups. He said the disruption in aid threatens to undermine progress made this year against the famine.
Kristalina Georgieva, the European commissioner for international aid, said the aid ban could force thousands of Somalis to flee.
"If they don't let the aid workers do their job then we will see more suffering inside Somalia and we will see more refugees going to neighboring countries," she said. "My concern is that we will see more people leaving in search of security and assistance."
Somalia has been mired in violence since 1991, when warlords toppled the country's last central government and then turned on each other.
The current government, which is confined to Mogadishu, does not control central and southern Somalia, but its president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, said Tuesday that al-Shabab's decision was "shameful and inhumane."
"We call on all Somalis and the international community to take a unified position in eradicating this irrational terror organization bent on destroying the lives of millions of innocent Somalis," said Ahmed.
Associated Press writers Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.