By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Thursday it had suspended food distribution to 1.1 million people in central and southern Somalia after Islamist militants blocked deliveries in parts of the famine-hit country.
A Somali government minister told Reuters the suspension could worsen the humanitarian crisis in a country where 250,000 Somalis already live in famine conditions and a total of 4 million need aid, according to U.N. figures.
The ICRC, which was one of the last agencies working in rebel-held areas, said militants had stopped its trucks since mid-December in the Middle Shabelle and Galgadud regions.
"The suspension will continue until we receive assurances from the authorities controlling those areas that distributions can take place unimpeded and reach all those in need, as previously agreed," Patrick Vial, head of the ICRC delegation for Somalia, said in a statement.
The ICRC said it was talking to al Shabaab, an Islamist rebel group linked to al Qaeda, to try and solve the problem as soon as possible.
The rebels, who are hostile to Western intervention in the lawless Horn of Africa country, outlawed 16 relief agencies including the U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP) in November.
Somalia has been mired in anarchy since warlords toppled military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Abdullahi Haji Hassan, Somalia's agriculture minister, said the action by the rebels would cause another humanitarian crisis, and called for international help to avert a disaster.
"Al Shabaab wants the Somalis to perish," Hassan told Reuters Thursday.
The suspension also hit the ICRC's distribution of seeds and fertilizers to farmers, part or its emergency operation begun last October to combat the effects of severe drought and war.
"We are in touch with local representatives of al Shabaab where the events have occurred - 140 trucks have been blocked since mid-December," ICRC spokeswoman Marie-Servane Desjonqueres said.
Somalia is the ICRC's second largest humanitarian program after Afghanistan, with an initial budget of about 70.2 million Swiss francs for this year.
Its programs to help severely malnourished children, and provide health care and clean water in other parts of Somalia, including Mogadishu, were continuing, Desjonqueres said.
"The suspension of aid will have effect on both civilians and al Shabaab ... Al Shabaab fighters are parasites," Hirsi Yusuf, the director of Somalia's federal and reconciliation ministry told Reuters.
Residents said the militants wanted only Islamic agencies to provide aid in the areas it controls, and many would flee to the capital Mogadishu to find food.
"Al Shabaab halted the ICRC aid a fortnight ago. Al Shabaab wants only Islamic organizations like Islamic Relief which also operates here," local elder Mohamed Nur told Reuters from Bardhere District in southwest Somalia.
"We the people need ICRC to continue aid but we have no power to challenge al Shabaab. The rebels openly told ICRC that Islamic organizations brought abundant food."
(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar in Mogadishu; Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Heavens)