Kenyan troops and their Somali allies say they will push deeper into insurgent-controlled territory in Somalia now that rains have stopped, as the U.N. called for $1.5 billion in aid for those hit by famine in the Horn of Africa nation.
Mohamed Ibrahim Farah, a spokesman for a Kenyan-allied Somali militia at Somalia's southern tip, said Tuesday that troops would move soon, by the end of the year.
"We are going forward within this week," he said as he addressed foreign journalists in a ramshackle hut of twigs and corrugated iron that served as the militia headquarters. "There was a lot of problems with the rain. There's a lot of places with the water there is no place to cross."
Somalia's devastating drought _ which has killed tens of thousands of people _ came to an end two months ago with torrential rains in the south. The thorn trees are covered in delicate green leaves and there are pools of water on the ground. But the puddles have been drying up since last week, and the Somalis are getting ready to move alongside their Kenyan allies.
But now that the rains have finally come, fields lie unplanted. Many farmers were driven off their land by the combined effects of drought and war. Humanitarians have warned that the effects of the crisis will last well into next year.
The problems were exacerbated when the militant group al-Shabab levied heavy taxes on families living under their control, said residents of Ras Kamboni.
"You either had to join them or you had to pay," said resident Hassan Mohamed, as his family peered out from the wattle-and-daub home, the women giggling. "If you had ten goats they could take two."
A Somali militia that was partly trained and funded by Kenya captured the ramshackle town about a month ago after al-Shabab insurgents withdrew.
Kenyan Maj. Seif Said Rashid said the local population urgently needed humanitarian aid. Kenyan soldiers had been doing the best they could, he said, but were stretching their resources ahead of the post-rain push.
"Food, water, medicine and education," he said, ticking off the needs on his fingers as a helicopter roared to life nearby.
He said international allies can help more by sending aid to the Somali people than by supporting Kenya's military.
"We need this aid for people more than any military equipment," he said.
"So now, we have been welcomed because we improved the security," he said. "But if we cannot make their lives better, than maybe we will lose hearts and minds."
Kenya crossed the border into Somalia in an offensive against al-Shabab in October after Somali gunmen carried out several kidnappings, including of four Europeans, in Kenya.
But aid agencies have been reluctant to move into areas occupied by the Kenyan forces, because they fear further attacks and worry about being too closely associated with the military.
In the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official for Somalia said they needed $1.5 billion to fund hundreds of lifesaving projects, including food, health and education projects.
"The Somalia crisis is everybody's responsibility and Somalis need support now," said Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. "We can't afford to wait, or we will let down the Somali people."
He also called on all parties to Somalia's conflict to grant aid agencies unconditional access.
The Islamist fighters who rule much of the country's southern and central regions last month barred 16 aid groups from operating in areas under their control.
He said while the lives of tens of thousands of people were saved by the world's rapid response to the famine crisis, continued support is crucial to building the population's resistance to future drought and other shocks.
Bowden said the world's response to the famine has proven effective, with the number of people receiving food each month tripling to more than 2.6 million. He said more than 480,000 acutely malnourished children have received nutrition supplements, and that mass vaccination campaigns reduced cases of measles by almost 50 percent. Three of the six areas where famine was declared in July had improved to pre-famine levels by November, he said.
"Without the generosity of donors in providing emergency funds, tens of thousands more people would have died," Bowden said.
Somalia hasn't had a fully functioning government since 1991, when warlords toppled the country's last central government and plunged the country into a continuum of civil war, lawlessness and violence.
Associated Press writer Malkhadir M. Muhumed contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.