WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed Thursday for Islamic militants in Somalia to allow aid groups unrestricted access to areas of the country under their control to distribute food to hundreds of thousands of people threatened by famine. Clinton also announced that Jill Biden would lead a U.S. fact-finding mission to neighboring Kenya to inspect relief efforts.
Clinton said the militant group al-Shabab, which has ties to al-Qaida, had a humanitarian duty to stop blocking assistance to those desperately in need, particularly during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on Monday. Al-Shabab, which controls much of southern Somalia, insists there is no famine and has banned all aid groups but the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"It is particularly tragic that during the holy month of Ramadan al-Shabab are preventing assistance to the most vulnerable populations in Somalia, namely children, including infants, and girls and women who are attempting to bring themselves and those children to safety, to the potential of being fed before more deaths occur," Clinton said.
"I call on al-Shabab to allow assistance to be delivered in an absolutely unfettered way throughout the area that they currently control, so that as many lives as possible can be saved," she told reporters at a State Department news conference with visiting Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird.
Millions throughout East Africa have been imperiled by a lengthy drought, which has led to famine in some areas. The U.S. estimates the drought and famine in Somalia have killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 in the last 90 days in southern Somalia alone. The U.N. says 640,000 Somali children are acutely malnourished, suggesting the death toll of small children will rise.
Earlier this week, the Obama administration said it would not enforce rules banning material support for terrorist organizations to assure relief groups that they will not be prosecuted if some of their assistance or cash ends up in al-Shabab's hands. Groups were concerned that paying tolls or taxes that al-Shabab often demands for access could place them in legal jeopardy in the U.S.
"We think unfortunately the situation calls for us to offer some room for more maneuverability in trying to get the food in," Clinton said. "At the end of the day the best way to get food into those areas is for al-Shabab to actually care about the people under their control."
For the administration to get a first-hand look at the situation, Clinton said Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, would visit Kenya this weekend accompanied by the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Raj Shah, and other officials.
They will be assessing immediate steps that can be taken to ease the suffering as well as looking at how to better "mitigate the long-term effects of prolonged drought and food shortages in the future," Clinton said.
The White House declined to provide additional details about Biden's trip.