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Desperate Somalis fleeing to Arabian peninsula

Thousands brave the perilous crossing to escape violence and the threat of starvation.

UNITED NATIONS // With the onset of calmer weather, a fresh exodus of Somali refugees is braving the perilous sea to escape their violence-wracked homeland for better opportunities on the Arabian peninsula, the United Nations said. Stormy weather in the Gulf of Aden typically prevents boat crossings between May and September, but last month saw 59 smuggling vessels bring more than 1,700 passengers to Yemen's coast, the UN's refugee agency said.

A gun battle between the Yemeni military and smugglers on one boat off the country's shore resulted in the drowning of eight people as passengers scrambled overboard to escape the hail of bullets. The survivors described a harrowing journey beset by powerful winds and rough seas in which one passenger committed suicide and three others suffocated to death while cooped up in the boat's hold. August's figures represent a sharp increase from the same month last year, when only 633 people attempted the crossing in 10 boats. It brings this year's total to at least 24,269, of whom 177 have died and 225 remain missing.

Yemen maintains an open-door policy to refugees and has absorbed a large share of displaced Somalis, although many go on to risk desert crossings into Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf nations in search of work. Earlier this week, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, warned that drought was pushing millions across the Horn of Africa towards starvation.

The organisation "called on Muslim countries in particular, together with Islamic charity and relief organisations and businessmen, in Ramadan to provide urgent and immediate food and medical assistance and contributions, both in cash and kind, to come to grips with the effects of the drought in these regions", a spokesman said. The UN's latest food security assessment reveals Somalia is enduring its worst humanitarian crisis in 17 years, with drought and soaring food prices pushing about 43 per cent of the population towards hunger.

Inflation is compounding the problem, with food prices jumping by about 700 per cent in the past year. "Strong national leadership is needed at this critical juncture, and more international funding must be quickly mobilised," said Per Engebak, Unicef's regional director. "The risks to children and their families are immense and we are running out of time to reverse them." Violence in Somalia has killed more than 8,000 civilians and uprooted one million since early last year, with the interim government and Ethiopian allies facing an Iraq-style insurgency of mortar attacks, roadside bombings and assassinations carried out by Islamic rebels.

Hopes were raised on Aug 19 when members of the transitional government and the main rebel group, the Alliance for Re-liberation of Somalia, signed the Djibouti Agreement after months of negotiation. But the meeting achieved only a limited impact, with hardliners rejecting the accord and continuing to fight in a country that has operated without central authority since its dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, was overthrown by warlords in 1991.

Somalia's new partners requested assistance from the UN Security Council last month, calling for a peacekeeping force to be in place within 120 days to replace a small, poorly-funded African Union force. The AU deployment in Somalia is meant to consist of 8,000 troops, but has only 2,600 soldiers from Uganda and Burundi on the ground. Nigeria has promised a further 850. Earlier this month, the 15-member council edged closer towards authorising a blue-helmet operation, calling on the UN to step up contingency planning for such a force and approach states to seek troop offers.

Michel Kafando, the UN envoy for Burkina Faso, which holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month, said the body "reaffirms its willingness? to consider, at an appropriate time, a United Nations peacekeeping operation? subject to progress in the political process and improvements in the security situation on the ground." The ambassador requested that Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, report back on the situation in Somalia within 60 days.

@email:jreinl@thenational.ae

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