MOGADISHU, Somalia — Al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia vowed to keep most international aid workers out of the country despite a worsening famine and the U.N. warned Friday that 800,000 children could die in the region from starvation.
Frustrated aid groups said they want to deploy more food assistance in Somalia but don't yet have the necessary safety guarantees to do so. The anarchic country has been mired in conflict for two decades and its capital is a war zone.
The renewed threat from al-Shabab means only a handful of agencies will be able to respond to the hunger crisis in militant-controlled areas of southern Somalia. And the largest provider of food aid — the U.N. World Food Program — isn't among those being allowed inside.
The U.N. fears tens of thousands of people already have died in the famine, which has forced Somalis to walk for days in hopes of reaching refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.
The World Food Program said Friday it will begin providing food for 175,000 people in the Gedo region of southwest Somalia and to 40,000 people in the Afgoye corridor northwest of the capital, Mogadishu.
Internally displaced Somalis have been heading to the capital. The number of Somalis who arrived in Mogadishu in July — 21,100 — is more than four times the number that arrived in June and more than 10 times the number that arrived in May, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
UNICEF, one of the few groups that does operate in al-Shabab-controlled areas, said it was gearing up to deliver "unprecedented supplies" across the region.
"If we are to save lives, we need to act now, to bring in massive quantities of medicines, vaccines, nutrition supplies into the region as quickly as we are able and then get them out to the children who need it most," said Shanelle Hall, director of UNICEF's supply division.
Somalia is the most dangerous country in the world to work in, according to the U.N.' s World Food Program, which has lost 14 relief workers in the past few years.
The militant group al-Shabab began to ban aid agencies in 2009, fearing the groups could host spies or promote an un-Islamic way of life. Earlier this month, al-Shabab appeared to indicate it would soften its stance amid the hunger crisis.
But on Thursday, spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said aid agencies the group had previously banned are still barred from operating in areas under its control. He called the U.N.' s declaration of famine in parts of Somalia this week are politically motivated and "pure propaganda."