By Barry Malone
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Rebels in Somalia -- where famine has been declared and 3.7 million people are going hungry -- burned food and medicine, and killed charity workers, as part of a long-running campaign of extortion against aid groups, according to a U.N. report.
The evidence in the U.N. Monitoring group report on Somalia and Eritrea exposes a policy of intimidation against aid groups going back as far as 2008.
Both the U.N. and the United States have blamed the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab group for worsening the food crisis in the country, where famine has been declared in two regions largely controlled by the militants.
"The single greatest obstacle to humanitarian assistance in Somalia during the course of the mandate has consistently been the denial of access by armed opposition groups, principally by elements of Al-Shabaab," the report, obtained by Reuters on Thursday, said.
The report said some U.N. agencies working in Somalia suspected local organizations they funded and funneled supplies through were paying money to al Shabaab, which the group called "taxes."
The report details incidents of al Shabaab officers demanding bribes from U.N. and aid agency officials to allow them to work in rebel areas and, in some cases, burning food stocks and medicine when cash was not paid out.
Al Shabaab surprised aid groups in the region this month when they pledged to reverse a ban on food aid that they imposed in 2010, but they later said embargoes against the U.N. food agency, WFP, and some major aid agencies would remain.
Political analysts in the region say that the famine declaration has put the rebels in a difficult position.
They may need to open their regions to food aid for fear of a public backlash if they do not, but allowing Western organizations into their territory is difficult to sell to their more hardline leaders, the analysts say.
"EAT ANYTHING EXCEPT FOOD AID"
In one incident in late 2010, an al Shabaab commander made a speech to local people, warning them against accepting foreign help, the UN report said.
"You can eat anything except food aid," the report quotes him as telling the crowd.
WFP has said it cannot reach more than 2 million Somalis now facing starvation in the areas controlled by al Shabaab.
WFP officials say they will try to access the al Shabaab areas over the next week but that they will consider dropping food from aircraft as a last resort if they cannot.
The report says the rebel group's contingent of foreign fighters drives the hostility toward charities, especially those deemed Western or Christian.
"Evidence also pointed toward the negative influence of foreign elements on al Shabaab leaders who were viewed as being the most obstructive to international aid delivery," the report said.
Security sources in the Horn of Africa say al Shabaab has several hundred foreign jihadists fighting alongside its Somali rank and file.
The report said al Shabaab commanders ask aid groups for an initial payment of $10,000 for access to the areas it controls followed by a registration fee of another $10,000 and payments of $6,000 every six months.
The rebels also demanded 20 percent of the value of all food and other supplies shipped through their areas and charged a duty of 10 percent on all vehicles.
(Editing by David Clarke)