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Hunger and desperation spread in Somalia as militants set blockade of towns in need

FILE - In this Tuesday, May 20, 2014 file photo, Mohamed Aden, a malnourished two-year-old boy, sits on his mother's lap at Banadir maternal hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. Residents and officials say that severe hunger is spreading in southern Somalia where Islamic militants have encircled several towns in the control of African Union forces, preventing food deliveries, and deaths from malnutrition and hunger have been reported. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh, File)

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FILE - In this Tuesday, May 20, 2014 file photo, Mohamed Aden, a malnourished two-year-old boy, sits on his mother's lap at Banadir maternal hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. Residents and officials say that severe hunger is spreading in southern Somalia where Islamic militants have encircled several towns in the control of African Union forces, preventing food deliveries, and deaths from malnutrition and hunger have been reported. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh, File)

MOGADISHU, Somalia - Severe hunger is spreading in southern Somalia where militants have encircled several towns in the control of African Union forces, preventing food deliveries there, residents and officials say. Deaths from malnutrition and hunger have been reported.

"I'm packed up to go," Maryan Howshow shouted by phone from the town of Bulo Burte. She said her son died of hunger last week, and her voice broke as she whispered his name: Mohamed. "It's a famine style situation. People are dying."

African Union forces fighting al-Shabab militants have moved into several towns across southern Somalia, pushing the militants out. But the consequence of that has been that the militants are blocking shipments of food from entering the town, creating a scene of hungry desperation.

"Al-Shabab's tactic of encirclement has prevented commercial activity and humanitarian assistance to newly recovered areas," Valerie Amos, the top U.N. official on humanitarian issues, told the U.N. Security Council this week. "Access to basic commodities is limited and food prices have increased."

The average prices of basic food items has more than doubled in many regions, and more than 70,000 people have been displaced as a result of the fighting, "significantly disrupting the planting season," she said.

Overnight attacks marked by explosions have become the norm. Tales of starvation are being reported from blockaded towns. Food is being airlifted into some areas but that expensive effort has limited effect. Elders in encircled towns say people are dying, though there is no official overall toll.

"At least five children died of hunger over the past two weeks," said Mohamed Abdi Tol, the commissioner of Bakool region. He spoke from the town of Hudur, which militants have encircled.

Humanitarian officials have been warning for months that large areas of Somalia risk mass hunger later this year. In 2011, famine hit Somalia, killing an estimated 260,000 people.

Amos told the Security Council that only 19 per cent of the $933 million aid leaders are asking for has been funded. Emergency needs in Syria and South Sudan have put a squeeze on aid funds for Somalia.

Earlier this week, the Food and Agriculture Organization warned that a below average harvest is expected in July and August due in part to two weak rainy seasons.

Most of the families fleeing from southern Somalia are arriving in the capital, Mogadishu, and piling into crowded refugee camps. One new arrival is Fatima Isaaq, the matriarch of a cow-herding family that lived for months under a militant blockade.

"We left behind everything to survive," she said. "There was no food medicine or supplies. We had no choice but to flee."

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Associated Press writer Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.

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