MOGADISHU Somali Islamist rebels accused the United Nations Thursday of exaggerating the severity of the drought gripping the south of the country and of politicizing the humanitarian crisis.
The United Nations has declared famine in two pockets of southern Somalia, said that 3.7 million people risk starvation and that it is launching its biggest ever relief effort.
The south of the Horn of Africa country is largely controlled by the al Qaeda-linked militants whose four-year insurgency is widely blamed for exacerbating the impact of the drought.
"We say (the U.N. declaration) is totally, 100 percent wrong and baseless propaganda. Yes there is drought but the conditions are not as bad as they say," al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told a media briefing.
"They have another objective and it wouldn't surprise us if they were politicizing the situation."
If the international community does not tackle the emergency swiftly, the famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia, the United Nations has said.
In early July, the rebels lifted a ban on food aid which they had said created dependency.
The U.N. World Food Program (WFP), which suspended its operations in the south of the anarchic country in January 2010, said Thursday it planned to start airlifts into Mogadishu within days.
Wednesday it said food would be trucked southwards to the two famine-hit regions of Bakool and Lower Shabelle.
Kenya urged the WFP to open more feeding centers in Somalia to stem the flow of refugees across its porous border.
"In no other country could the U.N. declare a famine," said Simon Levine of the Overseas Development Institute, a think tank in London. "You couldn't do that in any other country in the world because the F-word is too emotive. Somalia is different."
Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the scale of the crisis would probably force al Shabaab to cooperate more closely with aid agencies.
"They are desperate not to be seen as people who oversaw a large-scale humanitarian disaster in southern Somalia," said Abdi.
But he said al Shabaab was likely to impose some restrictions on aid operations and described the hardline group as "generally paranoid about any organization that has a Western label."
Levine slammed the international community for failing to avert a famine in the 21st century, denouncing the humanitarian aid system as "dysfunctional."
"We have lots of humanitarian organizations who are partly in competition with each other, fighting for territory, all busy doing their own things," he said.
(Additional reporting by Katy Migiro and Humphrey Malalo in Nairobi; Writing by Katy Migiro; Editing by Richard Lough and Tim Pearce)