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US warns of high Somali famine toll

Jill Biden tours refugee camp

Somalis in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. US officials estimate 29,000 children under 5 have died in the past 90 days in Somalia. Somalis in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. US officials estimate 29,000 children under 5 have died in the past 90 days in Somalia. (IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation)
By Jason Straziuso
Associated Press / August 9, 2011

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DADAAB, Kenya - Hundreds of thousands of Somali children could die in East Africa’s famine unless more help arrives, a top US official warned yesterday in the starkest death toll prediction yet.

President Obama approved $105 million yesterday for humanitarian efforts in the Horn of Africa to combat the worsening drought and famine. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the money will help provide food, shelter, water, and sanitation and health services to those in need.

To highlight the crisis, Jill Biden visited a refugee camp filled with hungry Somalis.

Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, is the highest-profile US visitor to East Africa since the number of refugees coming across the Somali border dramatically increased in July.

USAID administrator Raj Shah, who accompanied Biden, said hundreds of thousands of children could die from the famine. Shah said the world has a unique opportunity to save tens of thousands of children’s lives by expanding humanitarian activities inside Somalia, though he noted that it would be a challenge for aid providers to get into south-central Somalia, which is controlled by the militant group Al Shabab.

Biden, who traveled to the camp in a C-130 military transport plane, said yesterday that she wants to raise awareness and persuade donors to give more.

“One of the reasons to be here is just to ask Americans and people worldwide, the global community, the human family, if they could just reach a little deeper into their pockets and give money to help these poor people, these poor mothers and children,’’ said Biden, who met with two Somali mothers and their eight children.

As a convoy of SUVs drove through the sand to bring Biden to the camp, small wildebeests scurried off to the side and women tended a herd of goats. She was then taken on a tour of the refugee camp.

“There is hope if people start to pay attention to this,’’ said Biden, who also met with Kenya’s president, Mwai Kibaki, and Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

A drought has turned into famine because little aid can reach militant-controlled south-central Somalia, and tens of thousands of Somalis who have exhausted all the region’s food have been walking to camps in Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Somali capital of Mogadishu.

Given the refugee camp’s proximity to the uncontrolled and sometimes dangerous Somali border, a well-armed security team, some carrying sniper rifles, provided security during Biden’s visit.

More than 29,000 children under age 5 have died in the last 90 days in southern Somalia alone, US officials estimate. The United Nations says 640,000 Somali children are acutely malnourished, suggesting that the death toll of small children will rise.

The famine, Shah said, is the result of the drought being superimposed on an environment where the government could not protect its own people.

More than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa are in need of immediate food aid, including nearly half of Somalia’s population.

Aid is reaching only about 20 percent of the 2.6 million Somalis who need it, Mark Bowden, the United Nation’s top humanitarian official for Somalia, said on a visit to Mogadishu yesterday. The situation is better in the Somali capital, where about half the city’s 600,000 inhabitants are receiving aid, he said. Still, camps in Mogadishu for displaced people are among the five declared famine zones in Somalia.

Transport and security are the two main problems, he said, and it is unclear what the effect will be of the withdrawal of Islamist insurgents from their bases in the capital on Saturday. The city is awash in gunmen and there have been several shootouts at aid distributions recently. At least 10 people have been killed.

“An absence of conflict does not mean that there is security here,’’ he said. “There’s always been factions and militias.’’

A senior US official traveling with Biden said the United States believes it is too early to tell what Al Shabab’s intentions are, but that the reported withdrawal could be a sign that more aid could soon reach those in need.

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