Somali famine zones downgraded by UN

Internally displaced women queue for food rations at a feeding centre on 17 October 2011 in Mogadishu, Somalia
Image caption Camps for internally displaced people are areas were famine conditions still exist

Famine no longer exists in three of the worst-affected areas of Somalia following the intervention of aid agencies, the United Nations has said.

The UN's Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit said improving conditions meant Bay, Bakool, and Lower Shabelle had been downgraded from famine zones.

But the UN says a quarter of a million people still face imminent starvation.

"Somalia still remains the world's most critical situation," a senior UN official told the BBC.

Three other areas, including the squalid camps in the capital, Mogadishu, remain in a state of famine.

BBC East Africa correspondent Will Ross says aid agencies have better access in the capital so it is surprising that the malnutrition and mortality rates have not dropped further there.

The UN says about $800m (£505m) has been raised for the humanitarian effort following the worst drought to hit East Africa in 60 years.

The rains have now come, but Mark Bowden, the UN's humanitarian affairs co-ordinator, told the BBC the crisis was still very much on.

"It is good to see reductions in rates of malnutrition, some reductions in the rates of mortality," he said.

"Even so, I have to say that Somalia still remains the world's most critical situation. There are more people needing assistance than any other part of the world and the rates of malnutrition are still unacceptably high."

More than $1bn in donations will be needed next year, the UN says.

Conflict concerns

However, a senior aid worker familiar with the situation in Somalia who did not wish to be named told the BBC that the situation was still getting worse.

He said the UN could not admit this because it had to show the aid money was being well spent and having an impact.

Oxfam's country director for Somalia welcomed the announcement.

"The latest figures show that aid is reaching people in some of the worst-affected areas, and it highlights the amazing work being done by Somali organisations to tackle famine," Senait Gebregziabher told the BBC in a statement.

But the British aid agency said conflict was jeopardising the aid effort.

Last month Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia to fight al-Shabab - the al-Qaeda-linked militants it blames for a spate of kidnappings in Kenya.

Al-Shabab, which controls much of central and southern Somalia and has banned many Western aid agencies from its territory, has denied the allegations.

"Insecurity is already disrupting the supply of aid to tens of thousands of people at a critical time in the crisis, and an escalation in violence could throw recovery off course," Ms Gebregziabher said.

The international community should focus on diplomacy rather than more conflict, Oxfam said.

"We're seriously concerned that if people do not have the security to plant seeds or the freedom to access clean water and food in the markets, the humanitarian situation will deteriorate once again. If farmers are not able to work in safety now, there may be yet another failed harvest in January and a prolonged food crisis well into next year," said Ms Gebregziabher.

The Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit survey said famine would persist throughout December 2011 in Middle Shabelle and among areas of Afgoye and Mogadishu housing camps for internally displaced people.

"The size of the population in need of emergency assistance to save both lives and livelihoods will likely remain near current levels [four million people] for the coming nine months," the unit said in a statement.

Tens of thousands of Somalis have fled rural areas - many over the borders to Ethiopia and Kenya - in search of food.

Somalia has not had a functioning central government for more than 20 years and has been wracked by fighting between various militias.

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