JOHANNESBURG, South Africa Aug. 3, 2011 -- The United Nations warns that famine in southern Somalia has spread to three more regions and that all of southern Somalia will be a famine zone within the next month if there is not an urgent intervention, potentially dooming tens of thousands to a starvation death.
But getting assistance to the neediest areas has been complicated by an offensive launched by African Union and Somali government troops in Mogadishu against the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Al Shabaab, U.N. officials said.
The AU Mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, told ABC News that it has been working to push back Al Shabaab to make it easier for humanitarian groups to deliver assistance. In the last month at least 100,000 refugees have fled their drought-stricken homes to come to the war-torn capital. But two of the newly declared famine areas are both nearby and inside of the city itself.
EJ Hogendoorn, the Horn of Africa Director for the International Crisis Group, said that AMISOM has launched a pre-emptive strike against Shabaab after there were indications that the group planned to carry out a violent campaign during Ramadan. Al-Shabaab launched a similar offensive last year that included a deadly suicide bombing at the Muna hotel which killed 32 people including government officials.
The fighting has severely hampered the ability of aid agencies to reach those who are starving.
"The ongoing offensive is negatively affecting the ability of UNHCR and other partners to deliver assistance to populations in distress at a time when their needs are most urgent," said Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, spokesperson for UNHCR in a statement.
Lejuene-Kaba tells ABC News that the increase in fighting between pro and anti-government forces over the last three days has been particularly disruptive to the relief effort.
"It hampers our ability to deliver aid because we have to operate using security escorts. We cannot easily reach, or in some cases reach at all, the people who are most in need," Lejeune-Kaba told ABC News.
Somalia Fighting May Worsen Famine
Hogendoorn said that AMISOM and the Somali government's military actions have been more about securing and capturing the city from Shabaab than about delivering aid.
"[This offensive] has been portrayed as an attempt to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance," he said. "But it's triggered large scale fighting between AMISOM and AL Shaabab. That fighting has actually made it extremely difficult for the aid agencies to deliver assistance to the internally displaced communities."
Al Shabaab has also been blamed for hurting efforts to help the starving. The extremist group has refused to operate refugee camps in the southern areas it controls, forcing millions to walk for days and weeks on end through the drought-ridden south to reach refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Many don't survive the trek.
"They are trying to make it very impossible for the humanitarian groups," Lt. Colonel Paddy Ankunda, AMISOM spokesman told ABC News, earlier this week.
The complication of violence is what makes Somalia's crisis so much worse than the already serious drought the rest of the Horn of Africa is facing. The famine conditions, say humanitarian groups, are the result of a deadly equation of both drought and violence. Aid agencies don't want to get involved in the politics, they say, and just want to help people.
"We want all parties to ensure that there is humanitarian access, that humanitarian space be preserved at all times," said Lejeune-Kaba. "Without that access it's the civilians who suffer."