NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- U.S. restrictions designed to stop terrorists in Somalia from diverting aid are hurting humanitarian operations in the lawless Horn of Africa country, U.N. officials said Wednesday.
U.N. agencies have not seen any evidence from the American government that food aid is being diverted to Islamists fighting the U.N.-backed Somali government, said the top U.N. humanitarian official for Somalia, Mark Bowden.
"What we are seeing is a politicization of humanitarian issues," Bowden told journalists in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. "The options for a lot of Somalis look pretty bleak."
The U.S. reduced its funding to Somalia last year after its Office of Foreign Assets Control expressed fear that the extended supply line and insurgent-heavy areas where aid agencies were operating meant aid could be diverted to a group with links to al-Qaida.
The reduction contributed to a shortfall in funding that meant only two-thirds of the $900 million needed in 2009 was raised, said Kiki Ghebo, the head of the office responsible for coordinating humanitarian affairs in Somalia. The U.S. is the biggest contributor of humanitarian aid in Somalia.
Bowden says agencies were being asked to comply with impractical requirements by the U.S., but he declined to give details. He said stateside employees of the U.S. government's aid agency, USAID, were eager to resolve the impasse but said that they faced resistance from higher up in the administration.
"The whole issue seems to be dragging on for far too long," he said.
In Washington, a White House spokesman placed blame for the situation on terror groups active in Somalia.
"The actions of al-Shabaab and other violent extremists are what are denying Somalis urgently needed humanitarian aid," spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "The United States is committed to meeting humanitarian needs, including those in Somalia, and ensuring that our assistance does not fuel conflict."
Al-Shabaab is the most active group targeting Somalia's impotent transitional government, which is backed by the United States.
American reluctance to release funds is not the only problem agencies are facing. The World Food Program pulled out of much of southern and central Somalia after local Islamist commanders demanded $20,000 payments every six months to allow them to operate.
The Islamists also demanded that WFP fire all women working for them unless they were in clinics or health centers.
WFP will not restart its operations until the conditions are lifted and they are given assurances they will be allowed to operate safely, said spokesman Peter Smerdon.
The funding crisis and partial withdrawal of WFP comes as the government is preparing to launch an offensive against the Islamists. The U.N. refugee agency says 100,000 people have fled their homes throughout the country since January amid an upsurge in fighting.
Somalia has not had a functioning government for a generation. Successive administrations supported by the international community have failed to deliver either security or services to the people. Nearly half the Somali population is dependent on external aid.