In a squalid refugee camp beside Mogadishu's airport, some 2,000 desperately hungry women and children await help, many of them weak and dying in tents made of sticks and cloth. Missing from the camp, however, are large numbers of Somali men.
The militants of al-Shabab are trying to stop men from joining the tens of thousands of people who are fleeing the parched regions of south-central Somalia that the fighters control, refugees told The Associated Press.
In many cases, the al-Qaida-linked militants are succeeding in intercepting the men, with some even being killed by the Islamists, the witnesses said Wednesday.
The devastating famine in the Horn of Africa threatens al-Shabab's hold on areas under its control, with the militants fearing that the disaster will drive away the people they tax and conscript into military service.
"They're godless. They have no heart. They want people to die of hunger," said one refugee, Fatima Mohammed, who traveled to the impromptu camp near the airport with five children but had to leave two weaker ones with her husband. She told the AP that she and her family tried to walk at night to avoid al-Shabab checkpoints.
In the past, the militants have blocked aid workers from helping those in need in Somalia, fearing that foreign assistance would undermine their control.
Mohammed said the militants even told the refugees: "It's better to die of hunger than to accept the West."
There are indications, however, that the militant leaders are bickering about whether to let aid in during the latest crisis. A Somalia official says 50 al-Shabab fighters have defected and joined the government in recent weeks.
A force of African Union peacekeepers is based down the road from the airport refugee camp. They have delivered water to those inside the camp, which has no toilets, and have treated more than 50 cases of measles.
A World Food Program plane with 10 tons of peanut-butter paste landed Wednesday in Mogadishu, the first of several planned airlifts in coming weeks. That will help, but Lt. Col. Kuamurari Katwekyeire, the civil-military coordination chief for the African Union Mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, said the U.N. and other aid groups need to do more.
Those efforts by the AMISOM troops are helping to win over Somalis and counter the al-Shabab message, although there are no aid groups working inside the camp. The refugees have no way to get food, and many lie motionless inside the flimsy tents, too thin and weak to move.
One young child waved briefly at a reporter but soon lay his fly-covered head back down. Older, stick-thin refugees appeared on the edge of death.
Camp resident Hassan Ibrahim said one of his grandchildren _ a 4-year-old girl _ died and was one of 12 children buried Wednesday in the camp.
Ibrahim, 52, is one of the few men at the camp. He said he was one of the first arrivals from the famine-hit Bakool region, but that only days after he left, al-Shabab fighters arrested hundreds of men, beat them and forced them to stay behind.
At another refugee camp in Mogadishu, Ambiyo Isee said she fled the Bay region when her 50 goats died. She walked four days with three malnourished children and ended up in an al-Shabab-run refugee camp. She eventually fled toward Mogadishu.
"Al-Shabab forced us to either go back to our homes we left because of hunger or to stay in a fenced-in and empty camp," Isee said. "There was no food or water and the place was thorny, with small insects that gave our children rashes. ... In Mogadishu we get a little food, but it's rare and not enough. And our children are unfed. No one notices our pathetic condition."
AMISOM intelligence indicated that al-Shabab could launch an attack at a refugee camp in Mogadishu, either as an opportunity to hit the AU military force or as a way to discourage famine sufferers from leaving drought-stricken areas, said Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the coalition.
"What we are seeing is a divide between al-Shabab leadership. Some are saying 'Bring the aid.' Some are saying 'Don't you dare.' Some are opposed to Western aid because they are fighting Western ideology," Ankunda said. "They are telling people 'Go back to your homes,' but they are not going back. So al-Shabab are getting angrier with the people."
There are signs the people are angry with al-Shabab as well. At the Dollo Ado camp in Ethiopia, refugees list hunger but also brutal human rights abuses by al-Shabab as the reasons they fled Somalia, said Millicent Mutuli, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency.
And Abdirahman Omar Osman, the Somali government spokesman, said that more than 50 al-Shabab fighters have defected and joined the government since the drought began.
One of them, Ali Hassan, stood Wednesday among a few dozen former teenage al-Shabab conscripts who have joined a program to disarm fighters. Hassan said al-Shabab fighters have told men for months that their women and children would be killed if the men left for a refugee camp.
Another former fighter, 17-year-old Abshir Mohammed Abdi of Kismayo, said the wave of famine refugees was too much for the al-Shabab group in the city.
"Even with women and children suffering from drought, al-Shabab would stop them, stop them, stop them until they couldn't stop them anymore," he said.
Associated Press reporter Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia and Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.
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