Islamist fighters have accused the United Nations of exaggerating the level of emergency from hunger and drought in Somalia and are refusing to allow some aid agencies into the country to help the 3.7 million people at risk.
The rebel group al Shabaab claimed that the UN's declaration of famine in two pockets of the country held by the rebels was politically motivated.
Rains have failed and drought conditions have affected countries across north-east Africa but the 20-year civil war in Somalia has been blamed in part for turning drought into famine in the two areas. Somalia has been without an effective government since the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
The Islamist rebels, who control much of the country, had previously banned some agencies into the country, but they said earlier this month that they had been prepared to open talks on allowing them to return. But they appeared to backtrack after the UN launched its emergency appeal.
"We say [the declaration] is totally, 100 percent wrong and baseless propaganda," al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told reporters. "Yes there is drought but the conditions are not as bad as they say. They have another objective and it wouldn't surprise us if they were politicising the situation."
Famine is a state defined as a mortality rate of more than two people per 10,000 per day, extremely low access to fluids and wasting rates of above 30 per cent in children. Analysts said the rebel group was desperate not to be seen as overseeing a humanitarian disaster in parts of southern Somalia.
The UN Children's Agency – one of the few groups that is allowed in – said yesterday that 800,000 children were at risk of dying without urgent help. The UN said it feared tens of thousands of people had already died, which has prompted Somalis to walk for days to reach camps in neighbouring Kenya.
Al Shabaab said it would not allow banned aid organisations to return to the area. Groups such as Unicef and Save the Children are allowed to operate, but other groups like the UN's World Food Programme are not.
The World Health Organisation's representative for Somalia warned that the conditions for declaring a famine are expected to be reached soon in two further parts of southern Somalia. "In no other country could the UN declare a famine," Simon Levine of the Overseas Development Institute think tank told Reuters news agency. "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 co-operate more closely with aid agencies. But he said al Shabaab was likely to impose some restrictions and described the hardline group as "generally paranoid about any organisation that has a Western label".
*Al-Shabaab, which means "the youth" in Arabic, is a hard-line Islamist group linked to al-Qa'ida. The group, known for its harsh enforcement of Sharia law, has sworn to overthrow the weak UN-backed government and controls of much of southern and central Somalia as well as a large proportion of the capital Mogadishu.
Declaring war on the UN and Western non-governmental organisations, al-Shabaab was reportedly responsible for the killing of 42 aid workers between 2008 and 2009. Al-Shabaab fighters are recognisable by their red scarves and green uniforms.
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