Medical aid charity Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Wednesday it was closing all of its
operations in Somalia because of recurring attacks on its staff,
including murders and kidnappings.
The decision is expected to affect hundreds of thousands of poor people in the war-torn Horn of Africa nation.
"The closure of our activities is a direct result of extreme attacks on our staff - in an environment where armed groups and civilian leaders increasingly support, tolerate, or condone the killing, assaulting, and abducting of humanitarian aid workers," MSF President Unni Karunakara said at a press conference in Nairobi.
Karunakara said MSF, which employs some 1,500 local staff in the country, provided services to 300,000 people in the first half of 2013. The group has already pulled out its international staff gradually over the past 18 months.
"The reality is, in some places there will be no medical care for the people left behind," Karunakara said. "We just have to face that fact."
MSF said that in its 22 years working in Somalia - which has been plagued by droughts, food crises and war - 16 staff members were killed in numerous attacks.
Two Spanish staff, Montserrat Serra and Blanca Thiebaut, were held captive for 21 months in Somalia after being abducted in 2011 from the Dadaab refugee camp in neighbouring Kenya. They were released in July.
Immediately after MSF made its decision public, al-Shabaab forces in at least two villages in southern Somalia looted the charity's offices.
According to residents in the Bay region and Middle Juba region, the Islamist fighters stole medical supplies and logistical equipment.
MSF said it had been willing to tolerate the extreme risks involved in working in Somalia only because the country has "exceptional humanitarian needs."
The charity, which normally shuns weapons, has taken to using armed guards in Somalia in order to carry out its work.
MSF staffers said there had been resistance inside the aid group to the decision, which they described as "sad," but security concerns had prevailed.
The move to halt all operations by the medical group highlights how insecure the country remains, even in Mogadishu, two years after Islamist al-Shabaab militants were routed from the capital by Somali forces backed by African Union peacekeepers.
The country formed a new government in September, aimed at bringing stability to the nation, but its influence is largely contained to Mogadishu. The city continues to suffer bomb attacks by al-Shabaab.
The government has been trying to convey a sense of optimism about getting the country on a path towards peace and development.
"We are absolutely making huge progress. After two decades of conflict, we cannot overnight solve all the problems," said Abdirahman Omar Osman, a spokesman for Somalia's presidency.
"We are on the right track, we have the right strategies in place. This is why we want MSF to stick with us," Osman told dpa.
The government spokesman warned that the move by the charity could embolden the al-Qaeda linked militants.
"The decision from MSF is exactly what al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda wanted, so that they can terrorize people further. We kindly ask MSF to review its decision and to be with the people," said Osman.
Al-Shabaab, though weakened, continues to hold vast areas in southern and central Somalia.
Other groups seeking autonomy have carved out plots for themselves in the northern regions of Somalia, while the top half of the country is the self-declared republic of Somaliland.
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