|The UN has denied reports that half of all its aid is being stolen and sold on the black market [Al Jazeera]
The UN has acknowledged that it has been investigating food theft in Somalia for two months.
Stefano Porretti, the World Food Programme's Somalia country director, said on Monday that the agency's system of independent, third-party monitors has uncovered possible food diversion.
Sacks of grain, peanut butter snacks and other food staples meant for starving Somalis were being stolen and sold in markets, the Associated Press news agency reported.
The report raised concerns that business people had been undermining international famine relief efforts in a country grappling for control of territory with al-Shabab rebel fighters.
An official in Mogadishu with extensive knowledge of the food trade, spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.
He said that he believed that up to half of recent aid deliveries had been stolen.
The WFP, however, said that it rejected the scale of diversions alleged by the official.
The UN agency said it was "confident the vast majority of humanitarian food is reaching starving people in Mogadishu".
The WFP said that the AP report of "thousands" of bags of stolen food amounted to less than one per cent of one month's distribution for Somalia.
Joakim Gundel, who heads Katuni Consult, a Nairobi-based company often asked to evaluate international aid efforts in Somalia said, "While helping starving people, you are also feeding the power groups that make a business out of the disaster."
"You're saving people's lives today so they can die tomorrow."
Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman said the government did not believe food aid was being stolen on a large scale, but if such reports come to light, the government "will do everything in our power" to bring action in a military court.
'Aid snatched back'
Donated food is not even safe once it has been given to the hungry in the makeshift camps popping up around the capital of Mogadishu.
Families at the government-run Badbado camp, where several aid groups distribute food, said they were often forced to hand back aid after journalists had taken photos of them with it.
"We can't refuse to co-operate because if we do, they will force us out of the camp, and then you don't know what to do and eat. It's happened to many people already," said Halima Sheikh Abdi, a refugee.
In Mogadishu markets, vast piles of food were found for sale with stamps on them from the WFP and the governments of the US, Japan and Kuwaiti.
AP found eight sites where thousands of sacks of food aid were being sold in bulk. Other food aid was also for sale in numerous smaller stores. Among the items being sold were Kuwaiti dates and biscuits, corn, grain, and Plumpy'nut - a fortified peanut butter designed for starving children.
At one of the sites for stolen food aid, the former water agency building at a location called "Kilometre Five", about a dozen corrugated iron sheds were stacked with sacks of food aid.
Outside, women sold food from open 50kg sacks, while traders loaded the food onto carts or vehicles under the indifferent eyes of local officials.
Security for staff
WFP's Porretti said that monitoring aid had been a dangerous job for its staff.
After the deaths of 14 employees, WFP rarely allows its staff outside the African Union's heavily fortified main base at the airport.
"Monitoring food assistance in Somalia is a particularly dangerous process," Porretti said.
WFP now relies on a network of Somali aid agencies to distribute its food.
Gundel said aid agencies had not learned many lessons from the 1992 famine, when hundreds of thousands died and aid shipments were systematically looted, leading to US military intervention.
In the short term, he said, aid agencies should diversify their distribution networks, conduct frequent random spot checks on partners, and organise in communities where they work, but before an emergency occurs.
"It's going to be very, very hard to do now," he added.