Somali government troops storm UN compound and kidnap official

(Guardian) - Somali government troops have stormed a UN compound in Mogadishu and arrested the World Food Programme chief in protest at a decision to distribute food relief through a network of mosques.

About 60 soldiers forced their way into the WFP offices yesterday morning, taking Idris Osman , a Somali national, into custody at gunpoint and locking him in a cell at the national security services headquarters. No reason was given for the arrest, which promoted an immediate suspension of WFP work in the war-torn capital.

But UN officials said it was linked to a new method of food distribution that began on Monday using 42 local mosques to get aid to more than 75,000 people in the city. The WFP, which is struggling to deal with a growing hunger crisis in Somalia, had been unable to directly distribute food in the capital since June 25 due to violence and looting. "Going through the mosques guaranteed us a level of security that the government cannot give," said a UN official in Nairobi, who requested anonymity.

Though Somalia is almost completely Muslim, the transitional government views mosques, particularly in Mogadishu, with suspicion. The Somali Council of Islamic Courts, which took over the capital last year before being defeated by invading Ethiopian forces, used clerics to help draw in supporters fed up with more than a decade of anarchy in the country. Remnants of the Islamists' militant wing are behind a growing insurgency in the capital, with roadside bombs, mortar attacks and gunfights claiming several innocent lives every day.

The authorities draw little distinction between civilians and the insurgents that live among them, so humanitarian assistance is often a source of tension. Mohamed Dheere , the mayor of Mogadishu and a close government ally, recently accused aid agencies of feeding terrorists by giving food aid to internally displaced people in camps near the capital.

In a statement, the WFP said the plan to use mosques as distribution points had been cleared with the regional governor and said the government's action "violates international law". Attempts by the UN to secure Mr Osman's release had proved unsuccessful by last night.

The suspension of aid will be keenly felt in Mogadishu. The insurgency - and counter-insurgency operations by government and Ethiopian troops - has wrecked the already fragile economy. Drought and then floods have hit the Shabelle region, usually the country's breadbasket. Hyperinflation has set in. Countrywide, the UN estimates that 1.5 million people need food relief, with 300,000 of them only one step away from famine conditions. Somalia's government has accused the international community for not doing enough to help, but aid workers say that President Abdullahi Yusuf has done little to help the situation.

Insecurity is so rife that few aid agencies maintain offices in Somalia. The UN only employs Somalis to work in Mogadishu, as expatriates are considered too much of a target. Merely getting food into the country is a huge - and expensive - challenge. Piracy, which was almost completely eliminated during the Islamic Courts' six-month reign last year, is again rampant, making delivery of food aid by sea highly risky. UN officials believe that members of the government are the protecting the pirates, who demand ransoms of up to $1m (?500m) a ship.

Clan militias and bandits regularly attack aid convoys travelling by road, despite government promises to secure the main aid routes. Physical distribution of food may be the most dangerous leg of all, with the UN reporting an increasing number of fatalities in recent months. Government forces, who are poorly and irregularly paid, are often involved in the looting.

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