The United Nations has begun delivering aid to areas of Somalia controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants — a testament to the severity of the drought devastating East Africa.
Al-Shabab two years ago had banned foreign aid in territories that it controls, feaing that aid agencies could host spies or promote an un-Islamic way of life. But in recent weeks, tens of thousands of Somalis have fled militant-controlled areas because of a lack of food. And al-Shabab said earlier this month that it wanted to negotiate aid agencies' return.
Rozanne Chorlton, the UNICEF representative for Somalia, told the BBC that al-Shabab had assured the agency it could operate freely.
"They gave assurances that our access for humanitarian purposes would be unhindered and that we would be able to reach the people who need support most," Chorlton told the BBC.
UNICEF on Thursday called the drought and refugee crisis "the most severe humanitarian emergency in the world." The international Red Cross signaled "great alarm" this week at the nutritional state of Somali children.
Fears of famine
On Wednesday, UNICEF made what appears to be the first outside aid drop by air to the al-Shabab-controlled town of Baidoa, flying in 5 metric tons of food, clean water equipment and medicine. Baidoa is about 125 miles northwest of Mogadishu, the capital.
The United States, the United Kindom and some other western nations have designated al-Shabab as a terrorist organization. It and its allies control much of southern Somalia and about half of Mogadishu.
UNICEF says that more than a half million Somali children face life-threatening conditions with long-lasting consequences for their physical and mental development.
Thousands of Somalis have been walking days and sometimes weeks to reach refugee camps, including the huge Dadaab complex in northeastern Kenya.
"More children have died of malnutrition in the first four months of this year than in the whole of last year," said Andrew Wander, a spokesman for Save the Children.
With a population of almost 400,000, Dadaab is beginning to resemble a city, with up to 1,500 new arrivals everyday, according to NBC News. Dadaab was originally built for 90,000 people; more than 382,000 are now here.
The U.N. expects at least 10 million people will need food aid, and a U.S. aid official said he believes the situation in Ethiopia is even worse than the government acknowledges.
The Ethiopian government said that 4.5 million people need food aid there, 40 percent more than last year. Jason Frasier, mission director of USAID in Ethiopia, the U.S. government aid arm, suggested that Ethiopia might even be undercounting those who need help.
Aid agencies have appealed for more than $100 million in emergency funding while warning of dire consequences if help does not arrive.