NAIROBI — Relief groups and donors said Thursday they are prepared to relieve famine in parts of Somalia held by Al-Qaeda-inspired Shebab rebels, provided they can be sure aid will reach those most in need.
Tens of thousands have already died in Somalia in recent months, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The Shebab appealed for help earlier this month, saying it would lift a two-year-old ban on foreign aid groups so they could help Somalis suffering from a severe drought.
But on Thursday they abducted the country's newly appointed women's minister, highlighting the challenges for foreign relief groups planning to resume operations in rebel areas.
"We are determined to test that pledge," USAID administrator Raj Shah said. "We would like to see that access expand dramatically and rapidly."
He pointed out that donors wanted to provide support to "those populations in critical need and not to terrorist organisations."
Washington has listed the Shebab as a terror group.
"We are trying to make sure our humanitarian commitments reach those most vulnerable people," said Shah.
The World Food Programme announced Thursday that it will begin airlifting emergency food supplies to Mogadishu and plans to reach southern Somali regions.
"We are testing the ground to see how we can best get life-saving supplies in as quickly as possible to those at the epicentre of the famine in the south," WFP chief Josette Sheeran said in a statement after a visit to Mogadishu.
As relief groups plan to resume operations in Somalia, rebels kidnapped Asha Osman Aqiil, named women and family affairs minister on Wednesday, in a town north of the Somali capital.
The abduction comes a day after UN officials officially declared that two regions in the south of the war-torn country had been hit by famine.
The Shebab welcomed the UN's declaration, which concerned the southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions -- both under their control -- and said they would allow relief aid.
Last week, the UN children's agency made the first airlift of relief aid to the Shebab-held town of Baidoa and said the operation had gone smoothly.
"We are aiming to reach at least 70,000 children in the next six months, but it's a huge logistical challenge," said UNICEF spokeswoman Shantha Bloemen.
The agency had worked with a network of local organisation to distribute supplies and independent monitors to ensure the aid reaches those in need, she added.
The WFP said it was discussing with other UN offices on how to deliver aid to southern and central Somalia under Shebab rule, a region the UN agency pulled out of in early 2010 due to threats and the draconian rules imposed by the insurgents.
"We would never hand any relief assistance over to any military entity in Somalia or anywhere else," WFP spokesman in Rome Greg Barrow told AFP.
"We look for a cooperating partner on the ground in these situations.
"We have to work through partners in a situation where we understand there will be rigorous monitoring to ensure the assistance reaches those who need it," he added.
Nearly half of Somalia's estimated 10 million people face a food crisis and malnutrition rates there are the highest in the world.
Somalia has suffered a relentless civil war since 1991 and the plight of its people is often referred to as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
British aid group Oxfam has said that of the one billion dollars needed to assist the Horn of Africa drought victims there is a shortfall of $800 million.
On Wednesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged donor countries to come up with $1.6 billion in aid to combat a crisis he said would have an increasingly devastating effect on Somalia and its neighbours.
The United States responded by boosting its spending by $28 million on top of the more than $430 million sent to the region this year.
Norway on Thursday released another 3.8 million euros.
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