NAIROBI, Feb 3 (AlertNet) - An exceptional harvest after good rains and food deliveries by aid agencies have ended famine in Somalia for now but food stocks could run out again in May, the United Nations said on Friday.
The famine, which was declared in July, killed tens of thousands in south and central Somalia, much of which is controlled by Islamist militants. More than 2.3 million Somalis, almost a third of the population, are still in need of aid.
"....famine conditions are no longer present," said a statement from the office of Mark Bowden, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia.
"Millions of people still need food, clean water, shelter and other assistance to survive and the situation is expected to deteriorate in May," the statement cited Bowden as saying.
Al Shabaab said there was no hunger crisis in parts of the anarchic country it governed and accused aid agencies of misleading the population.
While aid deliveries to some 180,000 people in camps in the capital Mogadishu have improved the situation there, fighting in southern and central Somalia is still hampering aid deliveries to the worst-hit areas.
Government forces have been fighting Islamist rebels for the past five years, while Kenyan and Ethiopian forces both moved into the country last year to help fight the al Qaeda-linked militants al Shabaab.
The fighting, combined with attacks on aid workers and a history of aid being manipulated for political gain, means Somalia is one of the toughest countries for relief agencies to operate in.
CRISIS NOT OVER
Bowden called al Shabaab's expulsion of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from its territories a "critical concern."
The militants this week banned the agency, one of few international aid groups delivering food aid to areas under rebel control, accusing it of distributing out-of-date food.
Al Shabaab denied a hunger crisis persisted, accused relief groups of misleading Somalis and said it would not lift a ban imposed on more than a dozen aid agencies.
"There is no pretext for them," Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, al Shabaab spokesman told Reuters on Friday.
"Let those in Kenyan (refugee) camps and in Mogadishu come to us. There is no hunger in the areas under our control."
The U.N. said the latest harvest in Somalia was double the average of the past 17 years, and this had lowered food prices, though mortality rates in southern Somalia were still among the highest in the world.
In many parts of the south, acute malnutrition rates remain about 20 percent and access to treatment is severely restricted.
The U.N. said the current harvest offered respite but would provide just 10 to 20 percent of this year's food needs. It warned food stocks could run out in May, ahead of the main August harvest.
"We have less than 100 days to avoid another famine," said Jose Graziano da Silva, director general of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
"The crisis is not over. It can only be resolved with a combination of rains and continued, coordinated, long-term actions that build up the resilience of the population and link relief with development."
(AlertNet is a humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit www.trust.org/alertnet)