ABC News' Kirit Radia ( @KiritRadia_ABC ) reports:
The Obama administration decided this week to relax the enforcement of its sanctions on al Shabaab, the al Qaeda linked terror group that controls much of southern Somalia where the UN has declared famine, so that aid groups can provide much needed food aid there without fearing punishment from the United States.
The new guidelines are designed to reassure aid groups that, as long as they are providing legitimate humanitarian services, the bribes they may have to pay to Shabaab militants in order to access hard hit areas won’t violate U.S. sanctions. If this allows access to all areas under Shabaab control, which officials admit is unlikely, it could enable aid to reach 2.85 million more people in need, including 1.2 million children, 600,000 of which are now considered severely malnourished and in need of emergency intervention.
“We hope that this guidance will clarify that aid groups that are partnering with the U.S. government to help save lives under difficult and dangerous conditions are not in conflict with U.S. laws and regulations,” a senior US official said.
Last month the United Nations declared that parts of the Horn of Africa are suffering from famine, amid one of the worst droughts in decades. An estimated 12 million people have been affected, including about 5 million children. Areas under al Shabaab’s control are considered the worst off, since the militant group kicked out western aid groups and banned immunizations several years ago.
U.S. officials say they have found some al Shabaab leaders who are willing to let aid in, but said they aren’t holding out hope for access to all of the famine-stricken areas.
“We don’t expect there to be a grand bargain where we’ll be able to have access to all of southern Somalia, but we are working to find whatever ways we can to deliver that assistance,” another senior U.S. official said. “We do believe that there are very concerned leaders on the ground who will enable the kind of assistance that will save lives to go forward.”
“We believe al Shabaab is not a monolithic organization,” the first official added. “There are places where we believe we’ve been able to get food in. Our approach has been so far to ask al Shabaab to pull back and to allow unfettered, untaxed access to people in need, and in some places they’ve been willing to do that.”
Asked if there was a fear that other groups could take advantage of this to fund the terror group under the guise of humanitarian assistance, a US official said the crisis was so great that it’s worth taking the chance to help those in need.
“There is a risk here, quite honestly,” the official said. “Our first concern is to provide humanitarian assistance to people in need and there may be, I think there is some risk of diversion. We are going to do everything we can to prevent that diversion. But again I think that the dimensions of this famine, of this humanitarian crisis are such that you have to put taking care of people first.”