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Famine helps militants, new refugee camp opens

Islamic militants in Somalia who deny there's famine and block most aid are enjoying a boon in recruitment by giving people money at a time of rising food prices, United Nations officials said Friday.

The hardline militant group al-Shabab, whose control of much of southern Somalia and ties to al-Qaida discourages Western aid, is boosting its ranks as other options dwindle for Somali families who cannot find handouts or afford to pay for food, the U.N. refugee agency said.

The U.N. says tens of thousands of people have died from malnutrition in Somalia in recent months. But for al-Shabab, whose ban on outside aid groups except the International Committee of the Red Cross has contributed to the famine, the unfolding tragedy brings some advantages.

Bruno Geddo, the U.N. refugee agency's representative in Somalia, said a scarcity of food is triggering an uptick in recruitment by al-Shabab, which also is blocking groups of people from moving past its roadblocks, only allowing individuals to move past.

The militant group recruits young teenagers, kidnapping them from schools or forcibly removing them from their homes, while trying to stop the flow of refugees toward food, since the militant group draws its conscripts and taxes from the population.

"Because of the increase in food prices, this has been a boon for al-Shabab's recruitment campaign because when you don't have purchasing power to buy the food, you will be encouraged to be recruited because then you will be saved, and you can use that salary or you could be given food," Geddo said by telephone to reporters in Geneva. "It looks like quite a reality."

But the flow of famine refugees out of Somalia continues to increase. Ethiopia opened a fourth camp Friday to receive up to 15,000 arrivals from Somalia now living in an overcrowded transit center in the Dollo Ado area of eastern Ethiopia, said Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Mahecic said some 1,500 Somalis arrived in Kenya daily during the first four days of August, up from 1,300 a day in July, and health workers have reported an outbreak of measles in the Dollo Ado camps that has claimed about a dozen lives so far.

The U.S. estimates the drought and famine in Somalia have killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 in the last 90 days in southern Somalia alone. Millions face the risk of starvation amid Somalia's worst drought in 60 years.

The U.N. says 640,000 Somali children are acutely malnourished, suggesting the death toll of small children will rise, and the crisis is likely to spread across all of southern Somalia in coming weeks.