By Mohamed Ahmed and Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Thousands of Somali refugees, fleeing famine and years of violence, streamed into Mogadishu on Monday searching for food after Islamist rebels withdrew from the capital.
The al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab insurgents began pulling their fighters out of Mogadishu over the weekend, raising hopes that humanitarian groups would be able to step up aid deliveries after years of blockages by the militant group.
Locals told Reuters long lines of refugees were now heading to the battle-scarred city to escape the region's worst drought in decades, and existing supplies were already running low.
The United Nations says about 3.6 million people are at risk of starvation in Somalia and about 12 million people across the Horn of Africa region, including in Ethiopia and Kenya.
"Now thousands ... are on the way from Bakool and Bay (regions) to Mogadishu," Sherif Isak, 58, a refugee in Badbaado camp on the outskirts of the capital, told Reuters.
"I cannot say it will rain but I am sure life will improve if al Shabaab melts away. More agencies will come and people will get food and jobs," he said.
Al Shabaab withdrew four years into their battle to overthrow Somalia's Western-backed government, an insurgency that has driven the chaotic country deeper into anarchy.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre 20 years ago, and peace is a distinct prospect.
The militants, hostile to any Western intervention, have blocked humanitarian deliveries in the past, saying aid creates dependency. Aid agencies say they have been unable to reach more than 2 million Somalis facing starvation in rebel-held territories.
Days after al Shabaab's departure, the first of three flights from the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR landed in Mogadishu Monday, carrying more than 31 tons of shelter material, including blankets and jerricans for water.
Local officials said they were cautiously hopeful.
"If ongoing aid flights keep coming to Mogadishu, we are optimistic that people will survive," Fartun Abdisalan Adam, a local rights group official told Reuters in Mogadishu.
But existing supplies were running low. "The refugees are still storming the capital in search of food and there is not enough food for them to survive in the capital," she added.
Somalia's struggling government hailed the rebels' exit as a major victory but al Shabaab said their withdrawal was just tactical and promised to return, and analysts said the exit could herald a wave of al Qaeda-style suicide attacks.
Monday afternoon, a suicide car bomb detonated prematurely 13 km (8 miles) south of Mogadishu, officials said.
"We understand a car full of explosives detonated unexpectedly. Only the driver died, but two civilians were also injured," said Captain Ndayiragije Come, a spokesman for the African Union (AU) peace keeping force, AMISOM.
"The suicide car bomb was heading to Mogadishu. Al Shabaab has not given up war. They are masterminding more blasts but we are very alert."
Mogadishu residents said they still felt far from secure. Many feared fresh fighting between government troops and remnants of the rebel force hiding out in the capital.
Militants have threatened to behead anyone who betrayed their fighters to the police.
"I think this is one of the riskiest operating environments of any humanitarian operation in the world right now so I think sure, there's risk of an uptick in the fighting, there are all sorts of risks," a senior U.S. official traveling with the delegation of Jill Biden, the wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden was visiting Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp just over Somalia's border in neighboring Kenya. Dadaab, declared full in 2008, has seen an influx of about 1,500 Somali refugees a day since late July.
"There's such a great influx every single day ... coming in here that I think it's just getting overwhelming for them to handle it all. We need to stay ahead of it," Biden told reporters.
(Additional reporting and writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by James Macharia)