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US Officials Visit Somali Refugees, Press for Famine Assistance

Jill Biden, wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, center, sits with Somali refugees at a UNHCR screening center on the outskirts of Ifo camp outside Dadaab, eastern Kenya, 100 kms (60 miles) from the Somali border, Aug. 8, 2011.

U.S. officials and politicians say the need for famine aid in Somalia is growing faster than food shipments can arrive. Jill Biden, the wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, led a group of officials to a refugee camp in Kenya where more than 400,000 Somali refugees have fled the drought and famine in their homeland.

A day after visiting the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, former U.S. Senator Bill Frist was back in Washington Tuesday, saying more must be done to help famine victims. "A lot of people don't realize, especially in this environment of what's happening in terms of the economy here and at home, that this is the most acute food security emergency anywhere in the world now and in recent years," he said.

Aid groups say more than 12 million people across the Horn of Africa are in need of care as a result of the region's worst drought in 60 years.

To call attention to the famine, Frist joined Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, and several other officials in visiting the camp on Monday, the same day the White House announced an additional $105 million in drought assistance for Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia.

"The crisis is growing fast, and we saw that firsthand on the ground, talking to individual families as they were coming into refugee camps who literally had walked for 15 and 16 days - a mom with her four children; a husband, a father who is absent who is still in Somalia. They don't know whether or not he's alive," Frist said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development says there is now famine in five areas of southern Somalia, and that famine is likely to spread throughout the south before the rains begin in October.

Aid agencies say 29,000 children under the age of five have died in the past 90 days. More than 600,000 Somalis have already fled their country.

U.S. officials estimate 480,000 refugees are in Kenya, with about 420,000 of them in eastern Kenya's Dadaab refugee complex. The numbers continue to climb, with 1,400 to 1,800 refugees arriving each day.

Gayle Smith, a special assistant to President Barack Obama, was on the trip. She wants people to know that relief efforts have worked in the past and continue to do so.

"That we can get assistance to people, that the people in Ethiopia and Kenya, while adversely affected, are in a better position today than they might have been because of things that have been done over the last 10 years," Smith said.

Smith noted that programs have been put in place by USAID, donors and governments to ensure people are less vulnerable to droughts. She highlighted the U.S.-supported Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, which works to improve food security.

Aid efforts had been complicated by the presence of the Islamist militant group al-Shabab in the country. The group has opposed aid and Smith says aid groups welcomed al-Shabab's recent withdrawal from the capital city.

"The move of al-Shabab out of Mogadishu is a good sign. It's too early to tell whether it is a good and lasting sign, but it does offer the possibility of getting more assistance in through Mogadishu and to assist people there because one of the things we've seen is the congregation of internally displaced people as Somalis move into Mogadishu in search of assistance," Smith said.

The U.S. is urging governments to give generously to all United Nations relief agencies. The United States has provided approximately $565 million this fiscal year to help meet humanitarian needs in the drought region.