Somali famine: Fighting in Mogadishu after 'aid threat'

Somali government troops patrol sections of a front line in Mogadishu on 28 July 2011
Image caption The weak interim government controls about 60% of the capital city

Africa Union peacekeepers say they have seized key territory from Islamist insurgents in Somalia's capital after they allegedly threatened aid camps.

The heavy fighting came a day after the UN World Food Programme airlifted in its first famine emergency aid.

An AU spokesman told the BBC the action would increase security and enable aid agencies to get food to people displaced by the severe drought.

Thousands have arrived in government-controlled suburbs in search of food.

The WFP delivery is the first airlift of food aid since the UN declared a famine in two southern areas of Somalia last week.

Al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda linked group which controls much of central and southern Somalia, has banned the WFP from its areas.

Tens of thousands of Somalis have fled these regions to Mogadishu and neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia in search of assistance.

The UN refugee agency said on Tuesday that some 100,000 people had arrived in Mogadishu and settlements around the city in search of food and water in the past two months.

Dawn fighting

The weak interim government - backed by the 9,000-strong AU force (Amisom) - controls about 60% of the capital, Mogadishu, including the airport, the port, the presidential palace and areas around the city's largest market.

The BBC's Mohamed Dhore in Mogadishu says the fighting started just after dawn when government forces and African peacekeeping troops launched an offensive on an al-Shabab strongholds in the north of the city.

"The al-Shabab have sworn to attack the IDP [internally displaced people] camps if they don't move back to their areas - and therefore this operation was mean to ensure that this does not happen," Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the AU force in Mogadishu, told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.

Extended drought is causing a severe food crisis in the Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. Weather conditions over the Pacific means the rains have failed for two seasons and are unlikely to return until October.
An estimated 12 million people in the region are affected by the drought. The UN has declared a famine in six areas of southern Somalia, where it says 750,000 people could die in the coming months in the absence of adequate response.
The humanitarian problem is made worse by conflicts. Militants had lifted a ban on aid agencies operating in parts of southern Somalia, but have since accused Western groups of exaggerating the scale of the crisis and again limited access.
Since the beginning of 2011, around 15,000 Somalis each month have fled into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia looking for food and water. The refugee camp at Dadaab, in Kenya, has been overwhelmed by more than 420,000 people.
Farmers unable to meet their basic food costs are abandoning their herds. High cereal and fuel prices had already forced them to sell many animals before the drought and their smaller herds are now unprofitable or dying.
The refugee problem may have been preventable. However, violent conflict in the region has deterred international investment in long-term development programmes, which could have reduced the effects of the drought.
Development aid would focus on reducing deforestation, topsoil erosion and overgrazing and improving water conservation. New roads and infrastructure for markets would help farmers increase their profits.
The result of climate conditions, conflict and lack of investment is that millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are currently existing on food rations in what is said to be East Africa's worst drought for 60 years.
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"We've been able to capture three key junctions pushing the al-Shabab far behind where they can attack the IDP camps," he said.

He said Amisom now controlled eight out of Mogadishu's 16 districts, with five still contested and the insurgents in charge of three of them.

"The fact we control eight districts has enabled 80% of the population of Mogadishu to come to the areas we control," the spokesman said.

Al-Shabab has so far not responded to the claims made by Amisom.

Earlier, Col Ankunda said 41 al-Shabab fighters had surrendered.

However, he then retracted the statement, saying the 41 were civilians who had escaped to government-controlled areas after being held "hostage" by al-Shabab.

In recent weeks there had been a relative lull in the violence in Mogadishu.

But correspondents say there are fears that al-Shabab may once again carry out attacks, including suicide bombings, during the holy month of Ramadan, which starts at the weekend.

Earlier this week, Somali Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibrahim warned that more than 3.5 million people "may starve to death" in his country.

The WFP aid delivery came in by plane on Wednesday because sending it by boat would have taken months.

Challiss McDonough, a spokeswoman for the WFP, said the 10 tonnes of Plumpy'nut, a peanut-based paste high in protein and energy, would be enough to treat 3,500 malnourished children for a month.

Given the demand for food aid in Somalia, the delivery is just a drop in the ocean, says the BBC's East Africa correspondent Will Ross, in Nairobi, Kenya.

Somalia is thought to be worst-hit by the crisis, but Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti have also been affected.

More than 10 million people in the region are thought to be at risk from the worst drought in 60 years.

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