At least 10 people were shot dead Friday when Somali government soldiers opened fire after a looting rampage broke out during food distribution, refugees at the largest refugee camp in Mogadishu said.
"Seven of those died in the camp. The other three died outside as they fled. Most of those who died are refugees," Aden Kusow, himself a refugee, told Reuters from the World Food Program feeding site of Badbaado.
" It was carnage. They ruthlessly shot everyone," said Abdi Awale Nor, who has been living at the camp. "Even dead bodies were left on the ground and other wounded bled to death."
David Orr, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said the food distribution started smoothly at around 6 a.m. but degenerated a couple of hours later.
"We got reports of trouble, looting. The trucks were overwhelmed by a mob of people. There were reports of some shots fired," said Orr, who said he could not confirm any death tolls. He said he didn't know specifically what type of food was being handed out by the WFP, a U.N. agency.
Refugees struggle in lawless environment
Tens of thousands of Somalis fleeing famine have crowded into refugee camps in the Mogadishu area. But delivering food aid in the near lawless environment is proving to be a major challenge.
Somalia Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali visited the camp after Friday's violence and said he was "deeply sorry." Ali said an investigation would be opened and promised harsh punishment for anyone found guilty.
Some 3.7 million Somalis are at risk of starvation amid the troubled nation's worst drought in 60 years, relief agencies say.
Officials from the U.N. refugee agency said the hardline militant group al-Shabab, whose control of much of southern Somalia and ties to al-Qaida discourage Western aid, is boosting its ranks as other options dwindle for Somali families who cannot find handouts or afford to pay for food.
The United Nations says tens of thousands of people have died from malnutrition in Somalia in recent months. But for al-Shabab, whose ban on outside aid groups except the International Committee of the Red Cross has contributed to the famine, the unfolding tragedy brings some advantages.
U.S. fact-finding mission preps for trip
Meanwhile, international efforts to address the crisis increased on Friday.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, will visit Kenya this weekend to lead a U.S. fact-finding mission to East Africa to see what more America can do to help victims of the famine sweeping the region. Thousands of Somalis have fled to Kenya seeking aid and relief from the fighting.
In Turkey, the country's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, called for an urgent meeting of Muslim nations to discuss the famine in Africa. He said the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation could meet in Istanbul or in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to discuss the crisis.
"It doesn't matter whether the meeting is held in Istanbul or Jeddah, we want OIC to step in as soon as possible. We want to meet the needs of our African brothers in Ramadan month," he told reporters in Ankara after Friday prayers.
Bruno Geddo, the U.N. refugee agency's representative in Somalia, said a scarcity of food is triggering an uptick in recruitment by al-Shabab, which also is blocking groups of people at its roadblocks, allowing only individuals to move past.
The militant group recruits young teenagers, kidnapping them from schools or forcibly removing them from their homes, while trying to stop the flow of refugees toward food, since the militant group draws its conscripts and taxes from the population.
"Because of the increase in food prices, this has been a boon for al-Shabab's recruitment campaign because when you don't have purchasing power to buy the food, you will be encouraged to be recruited because then you will be saved, and you can use that salary or you could be given food," Geddo said by telephone to reporters in Geneva. "It looks like quite a reality."
Seeking refugee in neighboring countries
In the meantime, the flow of famine refugees out of Somalia continues to increase. Ethiopia opened a fourth camp Friday to receive up to 15,000 arrivals from Somalia now living in an overcrowded transit center in the Dollo Ado area, said Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mahecic said some 1,500 Somalis arrived in Kenya daily during the first four days of August, up from 1,300 a day in July, and health workers have reported an outbreak of measles in the Dollo Ado camps that has claimed about a dozen lives so far.
The United States estimates the drought and famine in Somalia have killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 in the last 90 days in southern Somalia alone.
The United Nations says 640,000 Somali children are acutely malnourished, suggesting the death toll of small children will rise, and the crisis is likely to spread across all of southern Somalia in coming weeks.