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African Leaders to Attend Famine Fund-Raiser

Somalis from southern Somalia receive food at a camp in Mogadishu distributed by the Jumbo organization, a local NGO, in Mogadishu, Somalia, after fleeing from southern Somalia, Thursday, July 7, 2011.

African Union officials say they hope to raise hundreds of millions of dollars at an international pledging conference for victims of drought and famine in the Horn of Africa. The conference is expected to attract several African leaders who will be at AU headquarters for a series of high-level meetings on Libya.

The one-day pledging conference will spotlight Africa’s response to the drought threatening millions of lives, most of them in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Critics have noted that while several international donors have made generous contributions that are helping to alleviate the suffering, Africa’s response has been slow.

As the severity of the drought became clear, an urgent pledging conference was initially scheduled for the first week of August. It had to be postponed, however, due to what officials said were scheduling conflicts.

African Union spokesman Noureddine Mezni says those attending this week will include as many as a dozen heads of state, many of whom were already planning to be in Addis Ababa for urgent AU meetings on Libya. "Some heads of state who are going to take part in the summit of the Peace and Security Council on Libya will also be in both meetings, which is very important, and we invited our partners from the international community including United Nations agencies, regional organizations, and we expect significant contributions during this meeting," he said.

Mezni said African leaders are hoping to respond to calls from aid groups for action, not words. "The population in Somalia and the rest of the Horn are in dire need, so we need action and this is an action-oriented conference," he said.

Mezni would not confirm comments by a senior AU official that the conference hopes to raise $600 million to combat the famine. Last week, the Organization of Islamic Conference pledged $350 million at an emergency summit in Istanbul.

The United Nations estimates a total of $2.5 billion is needed overall to address the urgent needs of 12 million people.

The worst conditions are believed to be in rural regions of southern and central Somalia, which are still held by the al-Qaida-linked extremist group al-Shabab. The U.N. refugee agency this week dispatched an emergency team to southeastern Ethiopia where 18,000 recent arrivals from the al-Shabab-controlled region are reported to be in dire need of help.

On the eve of the pledging conference, a top U.N. World Food Program official said some supplies are beginning to reach areas of southern Somalia that have recently become accessible to aid agencies.

But WFP East Africa regional director Stanlake Samkange said even in Mogadishu, which was cleared of al-Shabab fighters nearly three weeks ago, Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government is unable to provide security for food deliveries to a quarter of a million people living in makeshift camps. "We have requested the TFG to give us security guarantees to allow us to begin a general food distribution in nine camps serving 250,000 people in Mogadishu. We’re still waiting for a response to that request," he said.

Samkange said WFP must have assurances that there will be no repeat of the looting of aid shipments, such as happened recently at the Mogadishu port. He said two large boatloads of grain, one from Turkey and the other from Kuwait, were stolen as they were being unloaded, and are currently for sale in markets in the capital.