By TOM ODULA
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- The World Food Program said Saturday that it is expanding food distribution efforts in famine-ravaged Somalia, where the U.N. has estimated that only 20 percent of people needing aid are getting it because an al-Qaida-linked group controls large portions of the country.
Al-Shabab militants withdrew from most areas of the capital last week, a move that will significantly improve aid relief efforts, said Stanlake Samkange, the WFP regional director in East and Central Africa.
The militants' presence in Mogadishu had complicated international aid groups' efforts to feed the tens of thousands who had sought help in the capital.
"We are expanding our activities in Mogadishu and we are looking to dramatically increase those activities over the coming days and weeks as the security situation in the city permits," Samkange said.
On Saturday, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos visited the Somali capital, where she toured a hospital and met with people who had survived a long journey to Mogadishu to escape starvation. Amos said she could not imagine the plight of Somali parents trying to save their emaciated children.
"It is absolutely distressing," she said. "We really have to do what we can. I know security is difficult but we have to do all we can to make sure that we help people who are absolutely desperate."
Tens of thousands of people are feared to have died in the Horn of Africa drought in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia and more than 12 million people in the region need food aid, according to the United Nations.
But the situation has been particularly grave in Somalia because al-Shabab has been waging a war against the weak U.N.-backed Somali government. The group banned relief agencies from operating in its territories including the WFP, the world's largest humanitarian organization. The militants still control most of central and southern Somalia, and have killed people there who tried to flee starvation.
Aid is only reaching about 20 percent of the 2.6 million Somalis who need it, Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official for Somalia, said on a visit to Mogadishu last week.
However, Samkange said WFP also was making significant progress in distributing food in other areas across southern Somalia, much of which could not be accessed only a month ago and now are reaching several hundreds of thousands.
"The access situation is changing in southern Somalia because of the pressure and the serious condition there and we are responding to that very actively and very aggressively," Samkange said.
He said there are still security challenges in Mogadishu. A World Food Program handout of corn rations turned deadly after government troops opened fire, killing at least seven people more than a week ago.
Residents of Mogadishu's largest famine refugee camp accused government soldiers of starting chaos by trying to steal some of the 290 tons of dry rations that aid workers were trying to distribute there.
The African Union Mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, warns that al-Shabab still poses a threat in the Somali capital where humanitarian efforts are under way. Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha said the city was not calm despite the militants' withdrawal from more than 90 percent of the city and that AU forces fear guerrilla attacks now will increase.
AMISOM said they discovered 137 artillery shells of 155mm caliber on Friday from one of the positions al-Shabab had withdrawn from, which AU officials suspect were being stockpiled to make improvised explosive devices.
Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.'s Rome-based food agencies, said the U.N. acknowledges that it will need $1.5 billion for the Horn of Africa to continue relief work in the region until the end of the year.
She said rains are projected for October and the U.N. wants to assist farmers with planting their food to help ensure a successful harvest next year.
"Our commitment is to help families feed themselves whenever and wherever possible," Cousin said after touring the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya where Somalis have escaped famine often by walking for weeks.
Associated Press writer Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.