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Pirates Threaten Starving Somalis' Last Lifeline
ON BOARD THE VILLE DU QUEBEC , September 16, 2008 – Aid agencies fear an end to navy escorts could cut off vital food aid to Somalia , because the rampant piracy in the region has made the military protection essential.
Ninety percent of food aid is delivered to the Horn of Africa country by ship, the last lifeline for starving millions since insurgents armed with surface-to-air missiles make air and road deliveries too dangerous.
On Tuesday, the Canadian frigate 'Ville de Quebec' left the Kenyan port of Mombasa and was waiting for a World Food Programme cargo ship bound for Mogadishu with 5,000 tones of basic food goods.
The UN World Food Programme on Tuesday welcomed an EU decision to help combat piracy off the cost of Somalia , but appealed for a naval escort to help get aid to the strife-torn Horn of Africa country.
The international community stepped in to secure the humanitarian response, with France becoming the first country to escort WFP shipments in November 2007 and the Netherlands , Denmark and Canada also chipping in.
But the WFP's Somalia chief, Peter Goossens, expressed concern Tuesday that nobody has stepped up to continue the rotation, which he said had helped discourage pirates from further attacks on aid cargos.
"We have another two weeks of the Canadians, till September 27. So far we have no indication of any concrete proposal to assist us. That is now worrisome," he told AFP by phone.
"Most countries, if they were willing to do it, would need time, their ship would have to come to Somalia . That is going to take a couple of weeks, so I'm afraid we are already looking again," he explained.
Making matters worse, Somalis lived off their UN food reserves during the last changeover, when there was a six-week hole between the Dutch navy finishing its escort duties and Canada taking over.
"Even if one country tomorrow would say OK we will do it, it takes time for them to get ships there, so I'm afraid I'm going to see an interruption in the escorts again," said Goossens.
The UN agency had not been able to build up any significant reserves in country stocks, he warned. "So, if we have another gap, the effects are going to be felt immediately by the population."
Aid agencies say the situation in Somalia is more critical than ever before because of spiraling violence, a searing drought and inflation on basic commodities at 400 percent over the past six months.
They say 3.2 million Somalis depend on humanitarian aid for their survival and the UN predicts the proportion of the country's 10 million inhabitants needing assistance will soar to 40 percent by year's end.
Pirates armed with guns and rocket-launchers have intercepted dozens of ships over the past year, demanding high ransoms and disrupting traffic on one of the world's busiest maritime trade routes.
The state of disrepair of the road network in Somalia and northern Kenya means that only 15 percent of planned food aid could be trucked to Somalia .
Even so, countless roadblocks manned by freelance gunmen have rendered such an option extremely dangerous: six Somali WFP drivers have been killed since the start of the year.
But Goosens is adamant that the humanitarian crisis in Somalia is one of the worst in the world and that relief shipments needs to continue, regardless of the risks.
"We decided to go ahead. Basically, the situation in Somalia is too bad, we feel it wouldn't be responsible on our side to stop the shipments. But the risks are enormous," he said.
The international patrols recently organized off the coast of Somalia are struggling to curb the number of attacks by pirates, who operate on speedboats.
According to Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers Assistance Programme, the ransoms demanded by the pirates are rarely inferior to 1.5 million dollars.
In 2005, the WFP had already been forced to halt its aid shipments to Somalia after two if its cargo ships were attacked by pirates. In 2007, at least three of its ships was targeted.
Source: AFP, Sept 16, 2008