Famine Relief Progress Slow in Race to Save Millions

Despite positive developments, aid groups warn situation remains dire.

ByABC News
August 7, 2011, 9:34 AM

August 7, 2011 JOHANNESBURG -- While the world's attention this week has been focused on the global economic impact of the U.S. debt ceiling deal, credit downgrade and subsequent market woes, the drought crisis in the Horn of Africa continues to deteriorate.

Children in are dying at an alarming rate.

The United States estimates that as many as 29,000 Somali children died just in the last 90 days.

Three more areas in Southern Somalia have been added to the famine zone and the UN warns that without urgent intervention all of Southern Somalia will be engulfed in famine, resulting in the likelihood of tens of thousands of Somalis literally starving to death.

There have also been hopeful developments.

The retreat of the Al Qaeda-backed group Al Shabab from Mogadishu means that aid groups will have an easier time reaching the more than 500,000 people living either near or inside the capital city suffering from famine.

It's also significant progress for the current weak central government being backed by African Union troops.

For four years the fiercest battles for the soul of the country have taken place in Mogadishu.

"We have been dreaming of this day for more than three years," Somalia's Prime Minister Prime Minister Dr. Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said in a statement."This is a big day, and a tremendous step forward, towards a more stable Somalia. By their actions in the past hours the extremists have shown that they never had a place in a peaceful Somalia...And the people do not want them here," he said.

Virtually no one believes the retreat will be permanent, a point punctuated by an Al Shabab spokesperson who called the pull-out a "tactical" decision and told reporters the group will continue to fight the government and AU troops using guerilla warfare.

"We shall fight the enemy wherever they are," Ali Mohamed Rage, reportedly told a local radio station. He also emphasized the militant group will be tightening its control in Southern Somalia, where Shabab rules unabated.

But even within the Islamist insurgency there remains a long-standing conflict within the leadership made up of mostly foreign Al Qaeda fighters, who want Shabab to play a bigger role in waging global jihad and Somali clan leaders who want to keep the movement Somalia-focused, defeating the current government and AU forces and impose strict sharia law.

The confusion over whether the militants will allow foreign aid agenciesto operate in areas they control has highlighted the rift, with some local clan leaders insisting that they won't let their people starve.

Some humanitarian organizations like UNICEF are already operating in Shabab-controlled areas, and more aid agencies are working on getting access to the most needy.

"We do not believe that Shabab is a monolithic -centrally controlled organization," Bruce Wharton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs told reporters last week. "There are degrees of Shababness, so to speak."