By Ibrahim Mohamed
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Britain said on Wednesday that hundreds of thousands of children could starve to death in Somalia if the international community did not ramp up its response to the famine there, and pledged a further $48 million to aid children and livestock owners.
The latest pledge brings Britain's total aid to help tackle what aid agencies are calling the worst drought in decades to hit Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, to over 100 million pounds.
"We call today on other countries to put their shoulders to the wheel and ensure this dreadful famine ... does not claim up to 400,000 children," Andrew Mitchell, Britain's International Development Secretary, told a news conference in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
"We think the response around the world has been inadequate, dangerously inadequate," Mitchell later said in Nairobi.
Within the newly announced British package, 25 million pounds will go to UNICEF to provide 192,000 people with two months of supplementary rations and to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of children against measles and polio, a statement issued by the Department for International Development said.
A further 4 million pounds are earmarked for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to support the treatment and vaccination of more than 2 million animals weakened by drought, on whom 70,000 livestock owners depend.
Japan has also pledged about $600,000 worth of aid to the U.N. refugee agency to help famine victims at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, home to 440,000 Somali refugees.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference pledged $350 million at an emergency summit in Istanbul.
Mitchell's visit to Somalia, which is grappling to quash an Islamist rebellion that has hampered the delivery of food aid across swathes of its southern and central regions, was the first by a senior British minister since 1992.
CLAIMS OF FOOD AID STEALING
Somalia has been mired in violence and is awash with weapons since the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. First warlords, then Islamist militants stepped into the power vacuum, reducing a string of Western-backed governments to impotence.
Earlier this month, however, the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels pulled most of their troops out of Mogadishu, epicenter of their bloody struggle.
Their retreat effectively left the government in control of the entire capital for the first time since the civil war began in the early nineties, although Somali troops and African peacekeepers still encounter pockets of rebel resistance.
"(We discussed) the importance of taking the opportunity of using the withdrawal of al Shabaab from Mogadishu to demonstrate what the TFG (Transitional Federal Government) can deliver," Mitchell said after meeting Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali.
It was imperative Somalia's government cracked down on corruption, said Mitchell, who also visited a feeding center and refugee camp in Mogadishu.
Somalia is among the world's most corrupt nations and in recent days has been hit by allegations that food aid intended for famine victims was being stolen and sold for a profit.
The U.N. World Food Program said on Monday it was investigating claims of theft and sought to assure Somalis there would be no reduction in food aid flows.
"I want to tell the international community that we have a zero tolerance, zero tolerance, for any kind of government militia or any other Somali looting food aid," Ali said.
Thousands of refugees have been making the treacherous journey from the worst-hit drought areas, mostly under the control of rebels, to Mogadishu to seek access to food.
There they generally stay at one of several overcrowded makeshift camps in Mogadishu. Cholera has broken out in parts of the capital as well as in other areas of the country.
The British charity Oxfam said it would begin airlifting 47 tons of water supplies and hygiene materials to Mogadishu on Thursday to help more than 120,000 people get clean water.