Image: Dr. Jill Biden talks with female Somali volunteers in Kenya's Dadaab Refugee Camp
Noor Khamis  /  Reuters
Dr. Jill Biden, wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, talks with female Somali volunteers in Kenya's Dadaab Refugee Camp.
msnbc.com news services
updated 8/8/2011 4:36:43 PM ET 2011-08-08T20:36:43

A U.S. aid official warned Monday that hundreds of thousands of Somalis could die as famine spreads, amid a visit to Kenyan refugee camps by the wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

Jill Biden on Monday visited the world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab, where tens of thousands of Somali famine refugees have arrived in recent weeks.

Biden's trip is the highest-profile U.S. visit to drought-stricken East Africa since the numbers of refugees began dramatically increasing in June. Biden said the aim of her visit was to raise awareness and convince donors to give more.

Somalia's tiniest famine survivors rely on each other

"What I'm asking is for Americans to reach out and help because the situation is dire," said Biden, who met with two Somali mothers and their eight children during her visit to the camp. "There is hope if people start to pay attention to this."

More than 29,000 children under the age of 5 have died in the last 90 days in southern Somalia alone, according to U.S. estimates. The U.N. says 640,000 Somali children are acutely malnourished, suggesting the death toll of small children will rise in the coming weeks.

USAID administrator Raj Shah said models predict that hundreds of thousands of people could die from famine.

More than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa are in need of immediate food aid, including nearly half the Somali population. The U.N. has declared five famine zones in Somalia, including the camps for displaced people in Mogadishu.

Image: Somali refugees
Jerome Delay  /  AP
Somali refugees carry their donated rations of food aid in the eastern Kenyan village of Hagadera near Dadaab, 60 miles from the Somali border, Sunday Aug. 7, 2011.

Aid not reaching everyone in need
Aid was only reaching about 20 percent of the 2.6 million Somalis who needed it, said Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official for Somalia. The situation was better in the Somali capital, where about half the city's 600,000 inhabitants were receiving aid, he said.

US aid begins to trickle into Somalia

Transport and security were the two main problems, he said, and it was unclear what the effect would be of the Islamist withdrawal from their bases in the capital Saturday. There have been several serious gunfights at aid distributions recently, and at least 10 people have been killed.

"An absence of conflict does not mean that there is security here," he said. "There's always been factions and militias."

Kiki Ghebo, another top U.N. humanitarian official, said different kinds of aid were needed: food for the starving, vaccines and medical help to prevent disease outbreaks, and things like plastic sheeting and cooking utensils for those who had been forced to flee their homes because of the war and famine.

The United States is giving an additional $105 million in humanitarian aid for the Horn of Africa, where famine is spreading in Somalia, White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday.

The money, from U.S. President Barack Obama's Emergency Relief and Migration Assistance Fund, will provide "urgently needed food, health, shelter, water and sanitation assistance to those who desperately need help," Carney said.

The United States has provided about $565 million in humanitarian aid so far this year, he said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Islamist rebels withdraw from Somali capital

  1. Transcript of: Islamist rebels withdraw from Somali capital

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: For millions of people starving in the Horn of Africa , a stunning development today and the first ray of hope in months. Islamist rebels who had been blocking desperately needed aid deliveries appear to have pulled out of the Somali capital of Mogadishu . It's a move that could be a turning point in the violence and famine in Somalia . Our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is there.

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: At a health clinic in Mogadishu , it's hard to see how malnourished Mirian is, until her grandmother takes off her shirt. Mirian weighs only nine pounds, a little more than when she was born two and a half years ago, but she's getting better. She can drink from a bottle and keep the liquids down. But at this clinic, everyone had some relief today. Al-Qaeda -backed militants unexpectedly left Mogadishu overnight. For three years, a violent militia called al-Shabaab has been hated here. It banned music and gold, and imposed harsh Islamic law . But when the Taliban -style militants banned foreign food relief, it was too much for women like Ido Hasan . She lost two of her children to the famine.

    Ms. IDO HASAN:

    ENGEL: ' Al-Shabaab denied food access to our region. We hate them for that,' she said. African peacekeepers here were stunned this morning to find al-Shabaab out of the city. It could be a temporary withdrawal, the militants could still do suicide attacks, but Somalia 's prime minister told me it's none the less a victory for his government, which yesterday only controls half of Mogadishu .

    Dr. ABDIWELI MOHAMED ALI (Somali Prime Minister): I think the only reason that they left the capital city is because they lost the fight.

    ENGEL: We traveled by convoy with the African peacekeepers through newly taken land, to the old soccer stadium. This was the main al-Shabaab training camp in Mogadishu ; explosives, snipers. This is where the militants made almost all of their videos. Now, the Shabaab appear to have left. Violence in Somalia won't stop. But denying food to starving people may have cost al-Shabaab a key stronghold in Mogadishu that could be difficult to take back. Richard Engel , NBC News, Mogadishu .

    HOLT: Many of you have been asking how to help. We have been compiling a list of charities on our Web site . The address is nightly.msnbc.com.

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