A security alert against so-called “extremist elements” operating in Somalia has caused the Kenya government to impose an indefinite ban on commercial flights to and from Somalia. The suspension takes effect as thousands of Somalis are engulfed by heavy rains and flooding that make food and relief deliveries extremely difficult.
The security blackout is causing a prosperous aviation trade route for Kenyan merchants to shut down and is compounding support operations for NGO humanitarian groups. Gobinda Rajbhandari is Emergency Response Coordinator in Nairobi for CARE International—Somalia. He says that aid workers had evacuated their posts weeks before the flight ban was instituted.
“From South and Central Somalia, most international agencies have pulled out their expatriate staff because of security concerns. And that was prior to the flight ban. The flight ban has affected the other two regions in Somalia, which are Pundtland and Somaliland, in which international staff had their presence.
Most international agencies have pulled out from Pundtland, but not from Somaliland because from Somaliland, people can travel to Nairobi via Addis Ababa and that would be allowed. So the flight ban will not affect the movement from Somaliland to Nairobi,” he said.
CARE International – Somalia’s coordinator says right now, restoring staff on the ground is the main concern for relief groups, who are not hindered as much as Kenyan commercial traders by the air shutdown, because, he says, disaster supplies are still able to reach Somalia by ship.
“It is not so much for us the movement of goods, but the movement of staff. If the flight ban is not lifted soon, it could hinder humanitarian support. But on the other hand, we also have our Somali emergency staff working on the ground so that the operation can be continued at the same time. CARE International moves most of its goods by ship, from Mombasa to Mogadishu through commercial transporters and they use shipping.
So right now, the movement of goods is not affected for CARE International. But if the flight ban is not lifted very soon, it will affect other organizations planning to ship relief materials to many parts of Somalia which are affected by floods,” said Rajbhandari.
In the past month, both Britain and the United States have raised concerns with Kenyan officials about possibly being targeted for suicide attack by radicals from Somalia. Gobinda Rajbhandari says it’s troublesome to envision a nationwide terrorist alert occurring at the same time that the East Africa region is being overwhelmed by massive flooding. But he remains hopeful that Kenyan authorities will recognize how important it is to make provisions for humanitarian flights to resume urgent deliveries so that support groups can get on with their life sustaining work.
“There appear to be militant groups, which have threatened the presence of international staff in Somalia, and that has affected relief operations. And I’m sure with the question of time, the Kenyan government will allow at least the humanitarian flights very soon. We are very hopeful. And over time, maybe the commercial flights also will be allowed despite the inconvenience that Kenya has faced all along over the last 15 years,” he said.
Somalia Floods May Affect Up to One Million People
The heavy rains and flooding in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are expected to continue for several more weeks. Humanitarian officials are hard-pressed to get emergency supplies to those in need.
In Somalia, for example, UN officials describe the situation as one of the worst floods in recent history and warn up to one million people could eventually be affected.
Matthew Olins is the deputy UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. From Nairobi, he told VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua, “The flooding is becoming more widespread and it is becoming more serious. And we’re not optimistic looking at the next few weeks of projected rainfall and rising river levels.”
Asked about the worst affected areas, Olins says, “Currently, we have accurate information about the situation in northern Hiran Province, focused around the town of Beletweyne. But we would anticipate perhaps the worst affected areas to be in Middle Shabelle around the town of Johar. Johar is downstream from Beletweyne and normally a flood surge takes about five days to go from Beletweyne to Johar. We had the surge in Beletweyne around Friday and Saturday, so we would be expecting that surge to hit anytime now in Johar.”
Olins says other areas expected to be hard time during the short rains season are Middle and Lower Juba. “So we are also expecting very bad conditions in Bwale, Middle Juba and currently we are seeing a deteriorating situation in Jalebe and Jamaame, also in Middle Juba.
Emergency flights into Somalia have faced two obstacles. The Kenyan government had suspended all flights into Somalia on November 11th. However, Olins says Kenya will now permit humanitarian flights with 24 hours notice. Also, much of the flooded areas are under the control of the Islamic Courts Union. But the UN official says the local ICU officials have been very cooperative in allowing humanitarian aid to get in.
U.S. voices grave concern over situation in Somalia
The United States said on Wednesday that it was "extremely concerned" by the tense situation in Somalia.
"We are extremely concerned by the escalation of tensions inside Somalia, including a build-up of forces aligned with the Council of Islamic Courts around the interim capital of Baidoa, and recent militia clashes in northeastern Somalia," State department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said.
The Islamic militia should "immediately cease any further military expansion" and honor a June agreement for peaceful negotiations with the interim government, Gallegos said.
The Islamic Court has gained control of the capital, Mogadishu, and most of southern Somalia since June.
Somalia has been riven by factional fighting and has not had a functioning national government since Muhammad Siad Barre's regime was toppled in 1991.