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Merka, Somalia - Somalia froze aid activities in a famine-stricken south-eastern region on Tuesday, stalling a French navy operation aimed at stepping up food deliveries to the Horn of Africa country.
A spokesperson for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said that the Somali authorities had announced a freeze on all aid activities in the Lower Shabelle region, just south of the capital Mogadishu.
The government had imposed "new restrictions" on all UN agencies and non-governmental organisations operating in the area, WFP spokesperson Peter Smerdon told reporters.
Smerdon was speaking in Merka, a regional port around 100km south of Mogadishu where two ships - loaded with close to 4 000 tons of WFP food aid destined for camps housing the displaced - arrived earlier on Tuesday.
"We are all banned from moving in this area," Smerdon said. The restrictions were announced in a statement read by the government's security chief, quoting a decision by President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.
Lower Shabelle is considered the breadbasket of Somalia but has yielded its worst crops in 13 years, causing food shortages that have been compounded by an influx of hundreds of thousands displaced by fighting in the capital.
"No reason has been given by the authorities. The two ships that have arrived today in Merka are blocked and cannot be unloaded. There can be no plane movement in any airport of the region, including K50," he said.
K50 is an airport located 50km south of the capital Mogadishu and the preferred landing site for humanitarian flights.
The first shipment of WFP aid delivered under French navy escort arrived in Somalia two weeks ago.
Somalia's waters are among the most dangerous in the world, with at least 25 attacks or attempted attacks by pirates against merchant vessels since the start of the year.
The piracy has complicated the relief effort in Somalia, where few aid agencies can maintain permanent fully-fledged operations due to dire security conditions.
The fighting in Mogadishu over the past few months has left hundreds of civilians dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
French officials had explained that the operation to escort food delivery was aimed at reassuring ship-owners and upping the volume of aid sent to the war-ravaged country.
Dubbed "Alcyon", the French operation was announced by President Nicolas Sarkozy at the UN General Assembly in September.
The aid freeze came a day after a visit to Somalia by the UN's top aid official, John Holmes.
Holmes had said he would discuss obstacles to aid delivery with Somali officials, including President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed - who was hospitalised in Nairobi Tuesday - and newly-appointed Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein.
"There are checkpoints everywhere and aid agencies are stopped at these points and at times charged a lot of money. This is what I intend to discuss with the president and the prime minister," he said Monday.
Yet a day later the WFP's Smerdon complained that fees at the many checkpoints dotting the road from Merka to Mogadishu had abruptly shot up.
"Prices at checkpoints suddenly rose from 50 or 75 US dollars per truck to 500 per truck. Consequently, a convoy carrying 2 500 metric tons of WFP food from Jowhar to Mogadishu is now blocked," he said.