U.N. gravely concerned by Somalia threats, famine
* International concerns Somalia a leading militant haven
* Somalia due to hold elections by Aug. 20
By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS, March 5 (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council expressed grave concern on Monday at the threat posed by Somali pirates and extremist groups as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon warned the African state's humanitarian situation would likely deteriorate again in the coming months.
For the past two decades, Somalia has been engulfed in anarchy, chaos and conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that fighting, famine and disease have killed up to a million people since Somalia's last government collapsed in 1991.
The international community has become increasingly concerned at Somalia becoming a leading global haven for Islamist militancy and the rising toll of Somali piracy, estimated to cost the global economy some $7 billion a year.
"The Security Council remains gravely concerned about the ongoing threat posed by piracy and armed robbery off the coast of Somalia," the U.N. council said in a statement that also recognized that instability contributed to the problem.
"The Security Council remains gravely concerned about the threat posed to Somalia and the international community by terrorist attacks by Somali armed opposition groups, in particular al Shabaab," it said.
A weak Transitional Federal Government has been fighting al Shabaab Islamist militants - who have aligned themselves with al Qaeda - for the past five years and is now racing the clock to enact a new constitution and hold elections by Aug. 20.
A U.N. Security Council resolution last month expanded an African Union's peacekeeping force in Somalia, AMISOM, to 17,731 from 12,000, while a Feb. 23 conference in London of more than 40 countries agreed to "act against spoilers to the peace process." A follow-up conference in set for Istanbul in June.
On top of the security situation, a seven-month famine has killed tens of thousands in south and central Somalia, much of which is controlled by Islamist militants. The United Nations said last month the famine had ended, but more than 2.3 million Somalis, almost a third of the population, are still in need of aid.
"Sustained high levels of humanitarian assistance and an exceptional harvest have improved the situation," Ban told the U.N. Security Council on Monday.
"However, this progress is extremely fragile - and will likely deteriorate in the coming months as we move into the lean season before the next and most important harvest period in August. Somalia is not out of danger," he said.
Ban said the United Nations intended to move more staff to Somalia from Nairobi in neighboring Kenya in the coming weeks.
U.N. envoy to Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, said more than 320,000 children in Somalia were acutely malnourished and many areas now out of famine remained "on the cusp of falling back."
"In a village of 5,000 in these areas, a person dies every day; that victim is usually a child," he told the U.N. Council.
"We do not have the luxury of time ... Somalia today has the greatest opportunity to end the two decades-long conflict and bring lasting peace and stability," he said, adding that strong support was needed from the international community to capitalize on this momentum. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)