Somalia releases UN food aid boss

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MOGADISHU, Oct 23 (Reuters) The Somali government today released a senior UN food aid official held for nearly a week after dozens of intelligence officers stormed the world body's compound in Mogadishu.

''We welcome the release of Idris Osman, and are pleased that he will be reunited with his family,'' UN World Food Programme executive director Josette Sheeran said in a statement from the organisation's headquarters in Rome.

Osman is the local head of WFP in Somalia.

His detention, in an investigation of unspecified charges, had brought international pressure on the government and led WFP to stop aid distribution in the Horn of Africa nation, many of whose 9 million inhabitants are in dire need of food aid.

More than 60 security officers stormed UN offices in the coastal capital last Wednesday to arrest Osman. The United Nations condemned the raid as a violation of its immunity.

Violence has forced many aid agencies to quit Somalia, leaving the United Nations and a few others groups to run limited operations staffed almost entirely by Somalis.

There was no comment from the Somali government on Osman's release, but a witness confirmed he was free.

''The coordinator has just come into the WFP compound,'' a security guard there told Reuters.

Separately, a rights group lambasted the Somali government for ''systematic harassment'' of reporters, closure of media outlets and failure to investigate the killing of journalists.

With daily violence from an Islamist-led insurgency that targets the government and its Ethiopian military allies, Somalia has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists.

Few foreign correspondents go into Somalia, leaving local reporters to face the risks. Eight have died this year, most gunned down by unidentified assassins.

''The violent attacks on Somalia's journalists threaten their courageous reporting on the crisis in Mogadishu,'' said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a statement issued this week.

''The transitional Somali government must condemn and investigate these attacks as well as cease its own harassment.'' In the latest death, Radio Shabelle chairman Bashir Nur Gedi was shot dead on Friday night.

That followed a series of moves by security forces against the media, including temporary closure of radio stations and some arrests of journalists and managers.

Local reporters believe both insurgents and Somali and Ethiopian security forces have targeted them when they considered media to be favouring one side or the other.

''The growth of independent media and civil society -- one of the few success stories in Somalia's 17 years of violent, stateless warfare -- has been severely damaged over the past 10 months,'' HRW said.

''To date, Somali government officials have consistently failed to condemn the killings, much less investigate, arrest, or prosecute anyone in connection with them.'' Somali officials insist they are doing their best to protect journalists, as well as all civilians, but say they are up against a vicious group with links to al Qaeda.

REUTERS S AS1505

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