U.N. Food Program Under Siege

The U.N. World Food Program is in crisis after the killings of three of its drivers in Darfur and the detention of the program's top official in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The events have led to "a really tough day" for the agency, the program's East Africa spokesman, Marcus Prior, said.

In Darfur, two separate incidents over the last four days led to the deaths of the drivers. Friday, one driver was ambushed by gunmen and killed as he was driving a truck from the capital of southern Darfur to the north. The second incident took place Tuesday when two drivers were shot to death on their way back after delivering food.

Simon Crittle, spokesman for the food program in Khartoum, said that even though the drivers were working for a company contracted by the agency, it still considers their murders an assault on the program.

"We employ companies to drive our food around. About 2,000 people who are very brave in the work they are doing, extraordinarily brave, going out there, knowing the danger to help alleviate some of the suffering and feed around 3 million people," said Crittle.

"We are deeply shocked and saddened by this brazen act," he said. "We are not party to conflicts. We are working to alleviate suffering and bring food to the hungry. That an aid organization is targeted by gunmen is deeply disturbing."

Despite the killings, Crittle says the food program has no plans to stop delivering food in the troubled region. "The operation in Darfur is not about to end," he said.

Darfur, a region of western Sudan, has been in armed conflict between rebels, militia groups and the government since 2003. The United Nations estimates that more than 450,000 have died from the violence and disease while up to 2.5 million have been displaced.

Somalia Leader Taken

In Somalia today, government forces raided the U.N. compound in Mogadishu and arrested Idris Mohamed Osman, the top official for the food program in Somalia.

According to a statement released by the food program, no shots were fired during the raid, when Osman was taken by gunpoint by 50 to 60 uniformed members of Somalia's National Security Service. He is currently being held in a cell at the security services headquarters.

The food program says that the action "violates international law" and that no explanation has been provided for the arrest, but there have been reports of tension with the government over the distribution of food in the country. The agency is calling for Osman's immediate release and has suspended its operations in Mogadishu indefinitely.

"This did come as a major surprise," said Prior, who is based in the program's East Africa office in Kenya, which handles Somalia. "We have channels open to the authorities in Mogadishu and we're addressing the detention of our colleague and hope to secure his release as soon as possible."

Heavy fighting between Somalia's transitional government with help from Ethiopian troops and Islamists has heightened recently, with Mogadishu's civilian population often caught in the middle. A Human Rights Watch report released in August, "Shell-Shocked: Civilians Under Siege in Mogadishu," detailed the growing humanitarian crises in the country's volatile capital due to human rights abuses committed, it says, by both the government and the insurgents.

The food program is the biggest U.N. agency in the country. Monday, it began providing food assistance to the 75,600 residents in Mogadishu using 42 mosques, which were identified and approved by a regional government official. The distribution was the first to Mogadishu since June because of security concerns.

Prior says the program's food distribution will continue throughout the rest of the country.

Somalia has not had a recognized government since 1991, and has been embroiled in violence and chaos in the years since.

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