* Orders WFP’s Somali staff and contractors to quit
* Accuses agency of covert political scheme
* WFP says will provide aid as long as safe for staff
By Ibrahim Mohamed
MOGADISHU, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Somalia’s hardline Islamist rebel group al Shabaab has ordered the U.N food agency to halt all operations and leave the failed horn of Africa state, a statement from the rebels said on Sunday.
The World Food Programme’s Somalia operation has faced several challenges in recent months including accusations of diversion of food by its workers to rebels. It dismissed the charges after its own internal investigations. [ID:nLDE61G0R1]
"Effective as of today, all of WFP’s operations inside Somalia are terminated and the organisation has been completely banned," al Shabaab said in the statement.
The group said the agency’s food distribution had negatively impacted local farmers and accused it of handing out expired food and of harbouring covert political aims like offering assistance to Ethiopians.
"All Somali persons, businessmen and truck drivers who are currently contracted to or working with WFP are hereby instructed to terminate their contracts immediately," the statement added.
Anyone found working with the agency after the order was issued would be considered an accomplice to the organisation’s schemes and guilty of aiding in the destruction of the economy, al Shabaab said in the statement issued by its self-styled Office for Supervising the Affairs of Foreign Agencies.
Asked about the order, Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for the World Food Programme in Nairobi, told Reuters: "WFP is determined to help the people of Somalia in need of assistance, regardless of who controls the areas in which they live, as long as it is safe for our staff to do so."
Al Shabaab had earlier ordered the agency to stop importing food for relief into the country and to source it from Somali farmers from the beginning of this year. [ID:nGEE5AO2B2]
The insurgents control most of the south of the drought-ravaged country, where fighting between the rebels and government troops, has worsened one of the world’s most acute humanitarian crisis.
The U.N. Food Agricultural Organisation estimates that nearly half of the Somali population need aid and the country has the world’s highest malnutrition levels.
WFP, which has been central to the international response to the crisis, last month halted operations in much of southern Somalia, citing unacceptable conditions and demands from armed groups. [ID:nLDE6040KW]
Fighting in Somalia, which has had no effective central government for 19 years, has killed at least 21,000 people and forced more that 1.5 million from their homes since the start of 2007. (Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Noah Barkin)