The International Committee of the Red Cross announced that it is increasing food and other assistance for over 400,000 people displaced by violence in south and central Somalia. As Derek Kilner reports from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the announcement comes as Islamist insurgents continue an advance towards the capital, Mogadishu.
The ICRC's Somalia relief coordinator, Mathias Frese, said the organization will have tripled its food aid to Somalia from 2007 to 2008. The recent escalation in fighting, along with continued drought, have worsened what U.N. officials had already called Africa's worst humanitarian crisis.
On Thursday, Islamist insurgents entered Elasha, a settlement of displaced people fewer than 20 kilometers from Mogadishu.
Resident Jama'a Abdirahman told VOA that the Islamists left as Ethiopian troops, retreating from the town of Afgoye to the west, passed through on their way to Mogadishu. He said that members of the government militia that had controlled the town had returned, but that members of the radical Islamist al-Shabab militia, as well as fighters from other Islamist factions were still in the area.
On Wednesday al-Shabab took control of the port town of Merka, to the south. The transitional government, backed by Ethiopian troops, remains in control of Mogadishu, and the town of Baidoa, where the parliament is based, and has soldiers in Afgoye. But insurgents now hold much of the rest of south and central Somalia.
Ethiopia had agreed to withdraw its forces from urban centers as part of a peace agreement with a moderate faction of the insurgency, but the rebel advance may change those plans. If Ethiopian troops remain, however, their presence will continue to be a major grievance and rallying cry for the insurgency.
Meanwhile, the escalation in fighting has increased the numbers of Somalis fleeing across the border into Kenya. The U.N. refugee agency has echoed calls from Human Rights Watch, for increased attention to the influx. Emmanuel Nyabera, a spokesman for UNHCR in Nairobi, said the organization had asked the Kenyan government to construct a fourth refugee camp at Dadaab, along the border.
"We are extremely concerned about the situation in Dadaab refugee camp, because the camp is extremely overcrowded. The three camps that were supposed to accommodate around 90,000 refugees are currently accommodating around 224,000 people," said Nyabera. "We are currently receiving around 6,000 new asylum seekers every month. We are not in a position to give services to these people in a dignified manner."
The fighting has also hampered aid efforts inside the country, where attacks on aid workers have increased in recent months, and both sides have been accused of disrupting aid deliveries. Abdirahman, at the Elasha camp, said that the World Food Program had increased deliveries since Islamist fighters dismantled government checkpoints in the area.
Aid deliveries have also been restricted by insecurity along Somalia's coastline, which has seen a proliferation of hijacked ships in recent months. On Thursday night, a Chinese boat with 24 crew members was captured off the coast of southern Somalia.
The European Union agreed last week to supply ships for a naval operation to combat piracy off Somalia's coast.