Aid groups can't reach 2 million drought-hit Somalis

DADAAB, Kenya Sat Jul 23, 2011 12:33pm EDT

A malnourished child is seen inside a pediatric ward at the Banadir hospital in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, July 22, 2011. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

A malnourished child is seen inside a pediatric ward at the Banadir hospital in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, July 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Feisal Omar

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DADAAB, Kenya (Reuters) - Aid agencies cannot reach more than two million Somalis facing starvation in the famine-struck country where Islamist militants control much of the worst-hit areas, the U.N.'s food agency said Saturday.

World Food Program (WFP) officials said they were considering food drops from aircraft into some areas controlled by the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, which imposed a ban on food aid in 2010.

"There are 2.2 million people yet to be reached. It is the most dangerous environment we are working in in the world. But people are dying. It's not about politics, it's about saving lives now," Josette Sheeran, WFP's executive director, told agency staff and reporters in northeastern Kenya.

The drought gripping the region straddling Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia is the worst for 20 years and is affecting up to 11 million people. In southern Somalia, 3.7 million people are at risk of starvation.

WFP was among several groups ordered out of rebel-held areas last year who were now preparing to return.

"In a week to 10 days we can start moving food into those areas," said Regis Chapman, WFP Somalia's head of program.

Aid groups also face landmines in the border areas where al Shabaab clashed with Kenyan and Ethiopian forces earlier this year, Chapman said.

Desperate to find food and escape the conflict, thousands of Somalis are fleeing across the porous frontiers with Kenya and Ethiopia every day.

After walking for days through the scorching scrub, often without food and water, up to 1,500 people arrive daily at eastern Kenya's Dadaab camp, the world's biggest refugee camp.

In one camp hospital, mothers cradled 35 acutely malnourished children being fed by drip and battling for survival.

"I will never go back to Somalia. Somalia is just famine and war," Timera, an elderly woman who arrived at Dadaab four days ago, told Reuters near the clinic.

NICE GESTURE, BUT NOT ENOUGH

With Sheeran was France's Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire, who will report to a U.N. emergency meeting in Rome on Monday.

At an earlier stop in El Adow, a pastoralist village 100 km (62 miles) from the Somalia border, 75 year-old Nimau Witou clutched three bags of wheat, soya, beans and a can of cooking oil, given to her by WFP, lamenting the demise of her entire herd of livestock.

The handout should last her family a month.

"It's a nice gesture but it's not enough," Witou told Reuters.

More than a quarter of the children in the drought-prone area are malnourished and a third of adults receiving food handouts, U.N. data showed.

Al Shabaab have accused the U.N. of exaggerating the gravity of the humanitarian crisis and denounced the declaration of famine in two parts of Somalia as political.

Reversing a previous pledge, the group said the aid agencies they expelled in 2010 could not return.

Somalia's beleaguered government, which exerts almost no power outside of the capital, Mogadishu, condemned the militants' about-turn.

"The extremists are literally and deliberately starving the people to death," said Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali. "It is the insurgency itself that is the root cause of the famine."

Cycles of drought and flooding have become increasing frequent across the Horn of Africa and east Africa, due largely to global warming.

(Additional reporting and writing by Richard Lough in Nairobi; editing by Myra MacDonald)

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