By Mohamed Ahmed
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Islamist militants in Somalia have blocked two International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) convoys carrying emergency food aid for drought victims this month, contractors and a senior rebel said.
Residents of Baidoa, a stronghold of the al Shabaab rebel group, told Reuters they had seen the militants loading food aid from dozens of trucks into their warehouses there Thursday.
Aid worker sources said al Shabaab wanted to check the quality of the food. However, the targeting of ICRC convoys raised the possibility that the organization might join a long list of international groups barred from operating inside rebel-controlled areas of Somalia.
"Their claims of checking food quality are misleading. Their intention is very clear, they are looking for justifications to ban the agency like others before," a local ICRC contractor said on condition of anonymity.
The ICRC said in August it was scaling up its emergency food distribution operations in central and southern Somalia to help an additional 1.1 million people hit by drought and war.
It normally has good access to southern and central areas, much of which are controlled by the al Qaeda-linked insurgents, and it is unusual for its convoys to be stopped.
One large convoy was still being held up in Somalia's Middle Shabelle region after being stopped earlier this month.
"Al Shabaab fighters have surrounded us. They won't release the convoy until a decision comes from their seniors," one truck driver, who declined to be named, told Reuters by telephone.
The convoy was transporting rice, oil and beans, the driver said, and was destined for central Somalia.
The second column was stopped in Gedo, a southern province bordering Ethiopia, and then forced to go to Baidoa.
Aid sources in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, a hub for agencies working in Somalia, confirmed the blockades to Reuters.
A spokeswoman for the ICRC in Geneva declined detailed comment. "Our operations are ongoing and this obviously involves negotiations with different parties to the conflict and concerned authorities," said spokeswoman Nicole Engelbrecht.
"The ICRC does not wish to provide details about such negotiations and various stages of its operations."
The ICRC is by far the largest distributor of food relief in the lawless Horn of Africa country, where more than a quarter of a million people face starvation in the south.
The rebels, who are hostile to Western intervention, banned food aid last year in the areas they controlled and kicked many groups out, saying aid created dependency.
"We are more interested in medical organizations that are running advanced medical facilities. We don't want our people to depend on food aid forever," a senior al Shabaab official told Reuters when asked about the ICRC convoys.
Al Shabaab lifted the aid ban in July when the food crisis hit critical levels, only to re-impose bans on some groups later. Last month they outlawed 16 relief agencies including the U.N.'s World Food Program.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Richard Lough, Barry Malone and David Stamp)