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Aid Groups in Famine-Stricken Somalia Granted Leeway by U.S.

The Obama administration is assuring aid workers in the Horn of Africa that they won’t violate U.S. laws if some of their food, medicine or money ends up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked militants accused of worsening the region’s famine.

The revised U.S. guidelines don’t lift any restrictions on the al-Shabab network, which controls southern Somalia and has been blamed for aggravating the impact of drought-driven famine by barring international aid workers from the area.

The change responds to criticism by aid groups and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that U.S. rules were making it harder to get food to starving Somalis. Those regulations have allowed for the prosecution of U.S.-funded aid groups if they pay taxes or tolls demanded by al-Shabab on roads in the area.

“Our fundamental goal is recognizing the significance, the seriousness of the famine that’s going on right now in the Horn of Africa and the fact that many of the individuals most affected are under areas controlled by al-Shabab,” State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said today.

“We thought it was important to issue new guidance that would allow greater flexibility for NGOs and aid workers to get their assistance into those regions that are controlled by al-Shabab and to the people who need it,” Toner said.

Some Aid Arriving

There are about 12 million people in need of urgent assistance in the Horn of Africa, an administration official said today. He and two other administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record.

A second official said that around 19,000 metric tons of food began arriving in Somalia this week, the result of planning that began last fall when early warning systems signaled severe drought. The biggest challenge, the second official said, was getting it to people trapped in southern Somalia.

Many large international aid groups have pulled out of Somalia since 2010 because it is so difficult to operate in the area, the second official said. Since 2008, fourteen aid workers have been killed in the areas controlled by al-Shabab.

While aid to the area didn’t stop, it slowed. The official said the U.S. and other countries are now finding ways to get assistance to the area, including through airlifts.

The officials said that surveys and United Nations estimates show there are about 2.85 million people in the area who are in need. The U.S. has given $80 million in aid for work inside Somalia, part of a $459 million effort to reach 4.6 million people in distress throughout the Horn of Africa, the second official said.

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