08/13/2011 10:55 EDT | Updated 10/13/2011 05:12 EDT

Somalia Famine: World Food Program Expanding Aid As Cholera Cases Rise


The World Food Program says it is expanding food distribution efforts in famine-ravaged Somalia, where the UN has estimated that only 20 per cent of people needing aid are able to receive it because an al-Qaeda-linked group controls large portions of the country.

Al-Shabab militants withdrew from most areas of the capital last week, a move that will significantly improve aid relief efforts, said Stanlake Samkange, the WFP regional director in East and Central Africa.

The militants' presence in Mogadishu had complicated international aid groups' efforts to feed the tens of thousands who had sought help in the capital.

"We are expanding our activities in Mogadishu and we are looking to dramatically increase those activities over the coming days and weeks as the security situation in the city permits," Samkange said.

Force to protect aid convoys

Meanwhile, Somalia's prime minister announced the creation of a special force to protect aid convoys. Abdiweli Mohamed Ali told BBC News that 300 trained men will comprise the force.

Ali said the force would have two main jobs: "Number one is to secure the convoys and to protect food aid, and also to protect the camps when food is distributed."

The prime minister said the second priority was to "to fight banditry and looting."

The announcements Saturday comes in light of news this week the country faces a cholera epidemic amid poor sanitary conditions, according to World Health Organization officials. A majority of randomly collected samples of acute watery diarrhea collected from 4,272 patients in Mogadishu tested positive for cholera, the WHO said.

A lack of clean water for drinking and bathing and overcrowding in camps contribute to the spread of the disease.

'Absolutely distressing'

On Saturday, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos visited the Somali capital, where she toured a hospital and met with people who had survived a long journey to Mogadishu to escape starvation. Amos said she could not imagine the plight of Somali parents trying to save their emaciated children.

"It is absolutely distressing," she said. "We really have to do what we can. I know security is difficult but we have to do all we can to make sure that we help people who are absolutely desperate."

Al-Shabab has been waging a war against the weak U.N.-backed Somali government. The group banned relief agencies including the WFP from operating in it territories. The militants control most of central and southern Somalia, and have killed people who tried to flee starvation.

Aid is only reaching about 20 per cent of the 2.6 million Somalis who need it, Mark Bowden, the UN's top humanitarian official for Somalia, said on a visit to Mogadishu last week.

However, Samkange said WFP also was making significant progress in distributing food in other areas across southern Somalia, much of which could not be accessed only a month ago.

"The access situation is changing in southern Somalia because of the pressure and the serious condition there and we are responding to that very actively and very aggressively," Samkange said.

He said there are still security challenges in Mogadishu. A World Food Program handout of corn rations turned deadly after government troops opened fire, killing at least seven people more than a week ago.

Residents of Mogadishu's largest famine refugee camp accused government soldiers of starting chaos by trying to steal some of the 263 tonnes of dry rations that aid workers were trying to distribute there.

The African Union Mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, warns that al-Shabab still poses a threat in the Somali capital where humanitarian efforts are under way. Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha said the city was not calm despite the militants' withdrawal from more than 90 per cent of the city and that AU forces fear guerrilla attacks now will increase.