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Page last updated at 15:31 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 16:31 UK

UN-Islamist talks on Somalia aid

Mother and child in Somali hospital

The UN's refugee agency says it is holding talks with the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab to resume operations in areas under its control.

The UNHCR representative for Somalia, Guillermo Bettochi, said al-Shabab had recognised the dire humanitarian situation facing people in the region.

He said he hopes to be able to reopen an office in the town of Baidoa in the coming days.

Up to three million Somalis - half the population - need food aid.

Aid agencies have reduced their operations in much of Somalia after a spate of killing of aid workers.

The UNHCR pulled out of Baidoa when al-Shabab took the town in January because of security concerns.

Al-Shabab controls most of southern Somalia. President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed's UN-backed government only operates in a few areas.

'No basic services'

Mr Bettochi told the BBC that al-Shabab had recognised that "people in areas they control are facing a very serious humanitarian situation".

map of areas under al-shabaab control

"They don't have access to basic services, they don't have access to clean water. They are in need of emergency assistance that they [al-Shabab] cannot provide.

"We hope to be able to return [to Baidoa] when our safety is guaranteed," he said.

The Islamists are divided, he said, with some groups willing to work with humanitarian organisations and some not.

He said that speaking to al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaeda, did not mean recognising the group as the legitimate authority.

"We must speak to whoever controls the local area," he said.

Al-Shabab, which opposes a peace deal with Somalia's transitional government, has been trying to take control of areas vacated by Ethiopian troops, who pulled out the country in January.

They seized Baidoa, one of the last strongholds of the transitional government and the seat of parliament, in January and have imposed Sharia law.

The Horn of Africa country has not had an effective national government since 1991.



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