Militants are blocking relief efforts for the thousands of famine victims.MOGADISHU, Somalia - African Union troops fought house-to-house battles with militants Thursday to clear space for aid groups bringing in food supplies, after intelligence reports showed insurgents reinforcing for a possible attack on squalid camps of famine refugees. Heavy fighting erupted on the line of control between the government side and territory held by al-Shabab, Somalia's dominant militant group. At least six people were killed.
Somalia's drought and famine is unfolding in the middle of a war zone, greatly complicating international efforts to prevent a wave of death. About 2.2 million people live in an inaccessible famine zone controlled by al-Shabab, which has been linked to al-Qaeda.
Thursday's fighting was only 2 1/2 miles from the nearest famine refugee camp, said Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the African Union peacekeeping force. The offensive, he said, was to ensure the area is safe for aid groups to distribute humanitarian supplies to the more than 20,000 refugees who have arrived in Mogadishu this month alone.
"The agencies have been trying to deliver. Unfortunately, al-Shabab has been bent on ensuring this aid does not reach the people," Ankunda said. Al-Shabab's decision last week to rescind permission for aid groups to operate in areas under militant control has denied hundreds of thousands of Somalis access to food aid, he said.
Refugees have said militants already have killed men who tried to flee the famine region of Somalia with their families, saying it is better to starve than accept help from the West. African Union intelligence reports have indicated there could be attacks on Mogadishu's patchwork of ad-hoc refugee camps.
The famine in the Horn of Africa threatens al-Shabab's hold on areas under its control, with the militants fearing that the disaster will drive away the people they tax and force into military service. The militants previously have blocked aid workers from helping those in need in Somalia, fearing that foreign assistance would undermine their control.
The World Food Program said Thursday it had a funding shortfall of $252 million for famine relief efforts in the Horn of Africa. The agency said it was encouraged by the response of some donor countries that have pledged $250 million to help. The WFP estimates more than 11.3 million people need aid across drought-hit regions in East Africa.
The drought has created a triangle of hunger where the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet. The U.N. believes tens of thousands already have died in Somalia in areas held by the Islamist rebels. But the famine has particularly ravaged Somalia because many aid groups were banned from militant-controlled areas two years ago.
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