NAIROBI, Kenya — Tens of thousands of Somalis are feared dead in the world's worst famine in a generation, the U.N. said Wednesday, and the U.S. said it will allow emergency funds to be spent in areas controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants as long as the fighters do not interfere with aid distributions.
Exhausted, rail-thin women are stumbling into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia with dead babies and bleeding feet, having left weaker family members behind along the way.
"Somalia is facing its worst food security crisis in the last 20 years," said Mark Bowden, the U.N.' s top official in charge of humanitarian aid in Somalia. "This desperate situation requires urgent action to save lives ... it's likely that conditions will deteriorate further in six months."
The crisis is the worst since 1991-92, when hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death, Bowden said. That famine prompted intervention by an international peacekeeping force, but it eventually pulled out after two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in 1993.
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Since then, Western nations have mainly sought to contain the threat of terrorism from Somalia — an anarchic nation where the weak government battles Islamic militants on land and pirates hijack ships for millions of dollars at sea.
Oxfam said $1 billion is needed for famine relief. On Wednesday, the U.S. announced an additional $28 million in emergency funding on top of the $431 million in assistance already given this year.
Most importantly, as long as the Islamists don't interfere with aid distributions, those new U.S. funds aren't restricted under rules implemented in 2009 that are designed to keep food and money from being stolen by the insurgency.
"If (the insurgents) are willing to allow access we are willing to stand fully with the humanitarian actors," said Raj Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.