MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — African Union and Somali forces traded barrages of fire at a new front line in Mogadishu on Friday, as AU forces gained new territory. The country's president appealed for more international aid, saying the government can't feed all the overwhelming number of Somalis suffering from famine.
The African Union military force fears that al-Shabab militants may try to attack the camps that now house tens of thousands of famine refugees in the Somali capital, disrupting the distribution of food aid. A new offensive to push the militant front line farther back from the camps began Thursday.
A battlefield commander, Col. Paul Lokech, told The Associated Press on a visit near the front line Friday that a Pakistani fighter was commanding the al-Shabab troops battling his forces nearby, and that the militants were "active." Al-Shabab counts hundreds of foreign fighters among its ranks. Speaking of the Pakistani, Lokech said: "Don't worry, I'll get him."
Mortar fire and guns rang out nearby, as the militants put up more resistance than the AU forces had expected.
"They're worried about the ground they've lost," Lokech said.
The African Union and Somali troops have been fighting a concerted offensive against al-Shabab all year, and have gained a large swath of new territory in Mogadishu. But the fight took on a new importance in recent days as tens of thousands of famine refugees began squatting in squalid, hunger-filled refugee camps here.
President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said Friday that his government has created several refugee camps, but that his country needs urgent support because it can't support the level of aid that is needed. Ahmed also said the military has weakened al-Shabab, and that "soon they will be defeated."
The government spokesman went even further, saying the famine response from aid agencies "is too slow" and that the crisis is even more severe than the U.N. has said. He noted that diseases are spreading through the camps, including measles.
"The current famine situation in Somalia actually demands urgency, not only assessments and far-off responses, because many Somali children are dying in the county on a daily basis for lack of help," said Abdirahman Omar Osman. "We are asking the international community to increase their efforts and help these people facing misery. We believe the famine is bigger than the U.N. said."
The drought and the famine it's caused in Somalia have affected more than 11 million people, including 2.2 million Somalis who live in al-Shabab controlled territory in south-central Somalia where aid groups can't deliver food. Thousands are crammed into squalid refugee camps in the capital.
Though the masses arrived in hopes of finding food, many are not yet being fed, leading to an untold number of deaths in the camps.
A second U.N. plane landed in Mogadishu on Friday with more than 20 tons of nutritional supplements on board. A Kuwait Air Force transport plane also landed in the capital and offloaded sacks of food.
The World Food Program said with its second delivery Friday it has airlifted nearly 31 tons of ready-to-use food into Mogadishu. A WFP plane with 10 tons of peanut butter landed Wednesday in Mogadishu, the first of several planned airlifts in coming weeks.
WFP says it is supplying a hot meal to 85,000 people daily at 20 feeding centers in Mogadishu, but many refugees can't find the feeding sites or don't know about them.
"Our feeding centers continue to operate in spite of the difficult security situation and WFP is moving stocks out of our warehouse in Mogadishu to feed growing numbers of internally displaced Somalis who have fled the famine zone to the capital," the U.N. agency said Friday.
The AU offensive that began Thursday has seen AU troops move up the east side of Mogadishu's largest market — Bakara. The troops now control three sides of the market — the west, south and east — and AU force spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said Friday that the gains mean that tactically speaking the AU essentially controls the market.
Forces are now moving toward the city's large sports stadium, from which al-Shabab fires artillery, Ankunda said.
Putting a face on the young conscripts that fight for the ragtag force that is al-Shabab, three militant fighters surrendered to AU forces and were being questioned on Friday. The three are teenagers: ages 14, 15 and 17.
Also Friday, the World Bank said it did not renew funding for a project to help more than 1 million Kenyans to withstand recurrent droughts after some money could not be accounted for.
Johannes Zutt of the World Bank said the group chose not to give new funding to the Kenyan government for the Arid Lands Natural Resource Management Program until it accounts for $4.1 million that was used. The unaccounted money was part of $120 million the bank gave to the project from 2003 to 2010.
Critics say mismanagement and endemic corruption in Kenya's government are partly to blame for the hunger situation in Kenya where the U.N. anticipates that 3.5 million people will need food assistance in coming months. Tens of thousands of Somalis have also trekked to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, hoping to get aid in refugee camps.
The Kenyan government says it is looking into the fraud allegations.
Associated Press reporter Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia and Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)