The main Islamist insurgent group in Somalia, which is still in the throes of a major food crisis classified as famine in some regions, has banned 16 aid agencies, including several UN bodies, from operating in areas under its control, accusing them of "illicit activities and misconduct".
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO), UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) are some of the UN agencies banned. The Norwegian Refugee Council, Danish Refugee Council, Concern, Norwegian Church Aid and Cooperazione Internazionale (COOPI) are among the international NGOs banned by Al-Shabab.
UNICEF spokesman Jaya Murthy told IRIN that men came to the office in Baidao, 240km southwest of the capital, Mogadishu, and told the staff to leave and that the office was no longer UNICEF's.
"Our staff are safe and we are assessing the impact the closure will have on our humanitarian activities in southern Somalia," Murthy said.
The prospect of permanent closure faced by the agencies could lead to the deaths of thousands of vulnerable people, a civil society member in Mogadishu said. "This is truly bad news for tens of thousands that depend on these agencies."
He said it was not clear what prompted Al-Shabab's action but suspected that it was "because of the military pressure they have been under lately, maybe they are seeing enemies everywhere".
On October 16, Kenya began a military incursion into neighbouring Somalia, using terrestrial, aerial and naval assets, with the aim of neutralizing Al-Shabab, which Nairobi says threatens its security and economy.
Murthy said: "UNICEF is extremely concerned about any disruption of its humanitarian work and the feeding of 160,000 severely malnourished children. Any disruption could result in the death of those children."
He said the agency had not received anything in writing from the group.
In a statement issued on 28 November, Al-Shabab accused the agencies of "financing, aiding and abetting subversive groups seeking to destroy the basic tenets of Islamic penal system", adding that the agencies were "persistently galvanizing the local population against the full establishment of Islamic Sharia system".
The group said the aid agencies lacked "political detachment and neutrality with regard to the conflicting parties in Somalia, thereby intensifying the instability and insecurity gripping the nation as a whole".
In addition, the agencies were accused of misappropriating funds and using corruption and bribery in their operations.
"From bad to worse"
The civil society source said if the ban stands, "it could make the humanitarian situation in the country go from bad to worse. I just hope it will be a temporary thing."
The UN has reclassified the regions of Bay, Bakool and Lower Shabelle in southern Somalia to "humanitarian emergency" from "famine/humanitarian catastrophe".
According to the UN, humanitarian needs persist, with 250,000 out of a former 750,000 Somalis "still at risk of starvation".
Here is the full list of the agencies banned by Al-Shabab: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, World Health Organisation, United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Population Fund, United Nations Office for Project Services, Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit, Norwegian Refugee Council, Danish Refugee Council, Concern, Norwegian Church Aid, Cooperazione Internazionale, Swedish African Welfare Alliance, German Agency For Technical Cooperation, Action Contre la Faim, Solidarity and Saacid.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions