Somali rebels order WFP to halt relief food imports
* Some 3.76 million Somalis need aid
* Fresh fighting near Kismayu port
By Ibrahim Mohamed
MOGADISHU, Nov 25 (Reuters) - The U.N.'s World Food Programme must immediately stop importing relief rations to Somalia, hardline rebels said on Wednesday, accusing the aid agency of devastating local agriculture.
Al Shabaab insurgents control most of the south of the drought-ravaged country, where fighting has worsened one of the world's most acute humanitarian crises. Washington says the group is al Qaeda's proxy in the Horn of Africa nation.
WFP is a major player in the international response to the emergency. Experts say 3.76 million people -- or half the Somali population -- now need aid, and that three-quarters of those are concentrated in central and southern regions.
But in a statement, al Shabaab's Office for the Supervision of the Affairs of Foreign Agencies said imports by the U.N. organisation had become a barrier to Somalia's self-sufficiency.
"It has been decided that WFP must immediately refrain from bringing food rations from outside Somalia and rather purchase food from Somali farmers and then that food will be distributed to the needy," the statement said.
"The bringing of immense quantities of free food rations, specifically during the harvest season, has been devastating to the agriculture industry in Somalia and has greatly discouraged the Somali people from the agricultural trade."
The rebels said all local businesspeople contracted by WFP must terminate those contracts before Jan. 1, 2010, and that WFP must empty its warehouses and food stocks by the same date.
A WFP spokesman in neighbouring Kenya had no immediate comment. Experts say al Shabaab leaders have made tough statements before, then subsequently softened their stance.
Somalia has lacked an effective central government for 18 years. The Western-backed administration of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is battling al Shabaab and other rebel groups, and controls little more than a few part of the capital Mogadishu.
Rival rebels also routinely fight for territory.
Residents said gunmen from another guerrilla group, Hizbul Islam, attacked al Shabaab forces near the southern port of Kismayu late on Tuesday and clashes were nearing its airport.
The two groups had run Kismayu in an uneasy alliance until the end of September, when al Shabaab drove Hizbul out of town. The insurgent groups still launch joint attacks, however, on government troops and African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu.
Also on Tuesday, al Shabaab seized the village of Qoqani, near the Kenyan border, after Hizbul gunmen left it without firing a shot. Witnesses said the Hizbul Islam fighters regrouped at another village about 30 km (19 miles) from Qoqani. (Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Myra MacDonald) ((Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; tel: +254 20 222 4717)) ((For Interactive factbox on Somalia please click on http://uk.reuters.com//news/factbox