WASHINGTON - The United States is working to get more relief into famine-ravaged southern Somalia and is reassuring aid agencies they will not be penalized for programs in regions controlled by al Shabaab rebels, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said under new guidelines, non-governmental organizations working in Somalia would be protected "in the event their operations may accidentally benefit al Shabaab."
Toner said the change was intended "to send a strong message publicly to these groups that are working in the region that it's OK for them to bring this kind of humanitarian assistance into areas that are controlled by al Shabaab."
"They won't be held accountable to U.S. laws that previously constrained them and (we will) ease some of the licensing requirements on them."
The United States has placed al Shabaab on its official list of foreign terrorist organizations, a designation which forbids U.S. groups from providing "material support" to the group that controls large parts of the Horn of Africa nation.
The designation has complicated international aid efforts for Somalia, where a famine is spreading and some 3.7 million people are in urgent need of assistance in southern regions, many of them in areas controlled by al Shabaab.
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, the U.S. officials said.
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 hard-hit parts of Somalia, it would be possible to get assistance in.
"We don't expect there to be any grand bargain where we'll be able to have access to all of southern Somalia," one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"(But) we believe there will be ways and opportunities to move selectively into southern Somalia."
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.
The United States has already started to move emergency food supplies into the region, with some 19,000 metric tons of assistance delivered last week.
Another U.S. official stressed the new aid guidelines would include risk mitigation procedures designed to prevent al Shabaab from profiting from any aid diversions but they conceded that some spillover was possible.
"There is some risk of diversion," the official said. "We're going to do everything we can to prevent that diversion ... but I think the dimensions of this famine, this humanitarian crisis, are such that we've got to put taking care of people first."