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UNHCR demands immediate, unconditional release of Somali staff member

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UNHCR demands immediate, unconditional release of Somali staff member

22 June 2008

Sunday, 22 June 2008

NAIROBI - The UN refugee agency today called for the immediate and unconditional release of a UNHCR staff member who was abducted by unknown armed men on Saturday night from his home outside Mogadishu.

Hassan Mohamed Ali, also known as Keynaan, was taken from his home on the outskirts of the Somali capital at around 8 p.m. by armed men who drove him to an undisclosed location. By Sunday evening UNHCR had heard nothing from him or from his abductors, and the reason for his abduction remained unknown.

"We demand the immediate and unconditional release of Hassan Mohamed Ali," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, who just returned on Saturday from a three-day mission to Kenya that focused on Somalia's dramatic humanitarian situation. "He and other Somali staff are absolutely crucial in the provision of life-saving humanitarian aid for tens of thousands of innocent civilian victims of the ongoing conflict in their country."

Guterres, who spent Wednesday and Thursday with Somali refugees in the huge Dadaab camp near the Kenya-Somalia border, said the abduction represented another blow to humanitarian efforts to alleviate the suffering of an estimated 1 million uprooted people inside Somalia. Following a series of kidnappings and abductions of expatriate aid workers in north-east Somalia, or Puntland, and in south/central Somalia, the United Nations in April withdrew international staff and was gradually redeploying to other areas deemed safer.

"UNHCR is an impartial and apolitical organization whose sole focus in this extremely difficult situation is to ease the suffering of innocent civilians," said Guterres. "We ourselves are civilians. We are unarmed. We are humanitarians who are committed to serving those in need. It is unconscionable that those trying to help the victims are themselves targeted."

Ali, who is the longest-serving UNHCR staff member in Somalia, is well-known in Mogadishu as a humanitarian and human rights advocate. He and his family had also been displaced last year by the unrelenting conflict in the city and were living in Ceelasha village, west of Mogadishu on the road to Afgooye.

Ali has been finalizing plans for the latest distribution this week of basic aid supplies to some 40,000 newly-displaced people living in scores of crowded, makeshift sites along the 30-km stretch of road from Mogadishu to Afgooye. In all, more than 300,000 internally displaced Somalis are trying to survive along the Afgooye corridor in what High Commissioner Guterres described last week as possibly the worst place in the world to live.

Guillermo Bettocchi, UNHCR's representative for Somalia based in Nairobi, said Ali's abduction would now "force delays in the delivery of aid to people who are already desperate."

More than 1 million people are now internally displaced in Somalia while 450,000 more Somalis are living as refugees mainly in neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and even in Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden. In the last three months alone, violence in the devastated Somali capital has forced more than 50,000 more Somalis to flee their homes.