WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday called on al Shabaab militant Islamists to allow food aid into famine-hit areas of Somalia and said aid agencies would not be penalized if some of their assistance inadvertently ends up in militant hands.
Clinton accused al Shabaab, which controls large parts of the Horn of Africa country, of deliberately blocking emergency food supplies to some of the 3.7 million people in urgent need of assistance.
"It is particularly tragic that during the holy month of Ramadan, al Shabaab are preventing assistance to the most vulnerable populations in Somalia," Clinton said in remarks with the visiting Canadian foreign minister.
"I call on al Shabaab 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 said.
Clinton said a U.S. team lead by Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, and including U.S. Agency for International Development chief Rajiv Shah would visit Kenya this weekend to assess a food crisis which affects more than 12 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti.
Washington this week announced it was relaxing anti-terrorism rules that had threatened aid agencies working in areas controlled by al Shabaab, which is on the official U.S. blacklist of foreign terrorist organizations.
The new guidelines say agencies will not be penalized if their operations "accidentally benefit al-Shabaab." They are aimed at speeding the flow of aid into the hardest hit southern regions of Somalia.
Concerns over possible diversion of relief supplies to al Shabaab prompted a number of international aid organizations to suspend programs in southern Somalia in January 2010 and continue to constrain aid work.
Al Shabaab has given conflicting signals about whether aid programs will be allowed to resume, but the U.S. officials said they believed that at least in some areas it would be possible to get assistance in.
The United Nations' humanitarian aid chief said on Monday the famine in the Horn of Africa is spreading and may soon engulf as many as six more regions of Somalia.
"There is more than enough work for the international community to do to help save lives without even having to worry about the al Shabaab-controlled areas," Clinton said, adding that the United States had earmarked some $500 million for famine relief efforts.
"We are working with a lot of the U.N. and multilateral organizations, as well as the NGOs, to try to better organize to deliver the foodstuffs that are necessary," Clinton said.
Clinton said the United States had adjusted its guidelines despite evidence that al Shabaab imposes taxes on those trying to bring food assistance in and sometimes kidnaps aid workers for ransom.
"Unfortunately the situation calls for us to offer some room for more maneuverability in trying to get the food in," Clinton said. "The best way to get food into those areas is for al Shabaab to actually care about the people under their control."
Editing by Mohammad Zargham