By Barry Malone
EL ADOW, Kenya (Reuters) - Aid agencies are unable to reach more than two million Somalis facing starvation in the famine-struck Horn of Africa country where Islamist insurgents control much of the worst-hit areas, the U.N.'s food agency said on Saturday.
World Food Program (WFP) officials said the areas of southern Somalia controlled by the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, which imposed a ban on food aid in 2010, were among the most dangerous to operate in worldwide.
"There are 2.2 million people yet to be reached. It is the most dangerous environment we are working in the world. But people are dying. It's not about politics, it's about saving lives now," Josette Sheeran, WFP's executive director, told agency staff and reporters in northeastern Kenya.
The drought gripping the region straddling Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia is the worst for 20 years and is affecting some 10 million people, the United Nations says. In southern Somalia, 3.7 million people risk starvation.
WFP was among several groups ordered out of rebel-held areas last year who were now preparing to return. A WFP official briefing Sheeran said the agency was considering food drops from aircraft in regions inaccessible by land.
Aid groups also face landmines in the border areas where al Shabaab clashed with Kenyan and Ethiopian forces earlier this year, said Regis Chapman, WFP Somalia's head of program.
Sheeran visited the pastoralist village of El Adow some 100 km from the Somali border. A Reuters witness said cattle carcasses littered the arid lands surrounding the settlement.
More than a quarter of the children in the area are malnourished and a third of adults receiving food handouts, U.N. data showed.
NICE GESTURE, BUT NOT ENOUGH
In El Adow, 75 year-old Nimau Witou clutched three bags of wheat, soya, beans and a can of cooking oil, given to her by WFP, lamenting the demise of her entire herd of livestock. The handout should last her and her family a month.
"It's a nice gesture but it's not enough," Witou told Reuters.
"And it's not the kind of food we are used to, it's the wrong kind of food. But it's our only lifeline," she said.
Alongside Sheeran was France's Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire, who will report to a U.N. emergency meeting in Rome on Monday.
Al Shabaab have accused the U.N. of exaggerating the gravity of the humanitarian crisis and denounced the declaration of famine in two parts of Somalia as political.
Aid agencies the hardline group expelled from southern Somalia in 2010 could not return, they said, reversing a previous pledge.
Somalia's beleaguered government exerts almost no power outside of the capital, Mogadishu, where government forces and African troops are battling to quash the rebels' four-year insurgency. It condemned the militants' aid ban.
"The extremists are literally and deliberately starving the people to death," Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said in a statement. "It is the insurgency itself that is the root cause of the famine."
Cycles of drought and flooding have become increasing frequent across the Horn of Africa and east Africa, due largely to global warming.
"We know that food aid is not the solution for us in the long term," said primary school teacher Abdi Kadir Mohamed in El Adow. "We need to be better prepared for drought."
(Additional reporting and writing by Richard Lough in Nairobi, Editing by Maria Golovnina)