The United Nations warns of a humanitarian catastrophe as fighting escalates in Somalia at the same time the country is struggling to come to grips with the worst drought in a decade. It says about 2.5 million people are in urgent need of assistance. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The United Nations says hundreds of families fled their homes in Mogadishu during the weekend as intense fighting raged in the Somali capital. Aid workers say the situation has calmed somewhat, but remains tense, as people fear an eruption of renewed fighting at any time.

U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokeswoman Elizabeth Byrs says the escalation of fighting comes at a particularly bad time. She says drought is creating severe water and food shortages, especially in the poor central region.

She says few aid agencies are present in the region because of the rampant insecurity in the country. And, this makes it very difficult to provide assistance to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.

Byrs says the rainy season that starts in April is expected to be very weak this year.

"No rains means there will be a water shortage. It means that the harvest, which takes place in July or August will be very small, very poor and it means that we will have food insecurity," said Byrs. "So, this fighting plus the drought, altogether in the country, 2.5 million Somalis are in urgent need of assistance."

Byrs says camels, which are the animals most resistant to drought, are dying. This, she says, shows the severity of the drought.

"If camels start dying in central region and southern region, it means that most of the cattle already perished and the people will lack meat and food and dairy or milk provided by those animals," she continued. "And we have to assist both the population and their cattle, because the consequences can be very dramatic for this population."

If the situation does not improve enough in the next few weeks to allow humanitarian assistance to get into the country, the United Nations warns conditions in Somalia are likely to be as bad as they were in 1991 and '92. At that time, the combination of drought and civil war killed hundreds of thousands of people.