July 21 (Bloomberg) -- The United Nations set plans today to begin airlifting food into famine-stricken southern Somalia, accepting pledges of security from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militia al-Shabaab, which controls the region.
World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran decided during a trip to Somalia’s war-torn capital Mogadishu to test the sincerity of al-Shabaab, which has previously denied access to international aid organizations. The Rome-based UN agency said the airlift will begin “within days” and aims to reach as many as 2.2 million Somalis.
The announcement came the day after the UN declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia amid drought and conflict that have left 3.7 million people, almost half the country’s population, in need of humanitarian assistance. Famine in the Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions is the worst food-security crisis in the Horn of Africa nation since 1992, when 300,000 people died, according to Action Against Hunger, a New York-based humanitarian organization.
“We are testing the ground to see how we can best get life-saving supplies in as quickly as possible,” Sheeran said in a statement. “There is a life and death situation here in Somalia.”
UN Under-Secretary-General Lynn Pascoe, who also visited Somalia today, said “children are literally dying in the road.”
Bakool and Lower Shabelle are both controlled by al-Shabaab, which has been battling to seize power from Somalia’s Western-backed government since 2007. Somalia has been mired in a civil war for two decades and hasn’t had a functioning central government since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
East African nations including Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are experiencing the worst drought in 60 years, leaving 11.3 million people in need of food assistance. The failure of crops and conflict between al-Shabaab insurgents has forced almost 800,000 refugees to flee Somalia to neighboring countries, a fifth of them since the beginning of this year, according to the UN.
A famine is declared when malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 percent; more than two people per 10,000 die per day; and people are unable to access food and other basic necessities.
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