NAIROBI The United Nations said on Monday it had started airlifting food aid to rebel-held parts of drought-hit Somalia and that Islamist insurgents had abided by a pledge to allow relief workers free access.
Some analysts in the Horn of Africa region say the insurgents are allowing aid in for fear of a public backlash if they do not. Others say the rebels want to receive bribes.
The U.N. has described the drought as an emergency, one level short of a famine. Some 10 million people are affected in the region, dubbed the "triangle of death" by local media, that straddles Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.
The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, began airlifting food and medicine into the city of Baidoa at the weekend using an airstrip that al Shabaab rebels had previously ordered off limits.
"The reason we airlifted was essentially the need for speed," said UNICEF's representative for Somalia, Rozanne Chorlton.
"We just had to try to get more supplies in more quickly because there was an increase in numbers of internally displaced people."
Chorlton said the operation went "fine" and that the rebels had left U.N. workers alone.
Somalia has had no effective central government for two decades, worsening the impact of recurring droughts. The Islamist rebels, affiliated to al Qaeda, control pockets of the capital Mogadishu and swathes of southern and central Somalia.
The U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP) suspended its operations across much of southern and central Somalia in early 2010 after al Shabaab ordered the agency to halt operations in areas under its control.
WFP, which the rebels denounced as a "spy agency," carried on working in other parts of Somalia but the most drought-prone areas are largely rebel-controlled.
Al Shabaab surprised aid groups last week with a pledge to allow relief agencies with "no hidden agendas" greater access to rebel-held territory.
WFP, which at one stage faced demands to remove women from their jobs and pay thousands of dollars for security every six months, said it might return if conditions allowed and security clearance from the United Nations was granted.
Senior aid officials in the region said on Monday that WFP was debating the offer to return but was worried because the rebels had singled it out before.
Some of Somalia's leading politicians welcomed the rebels' move but questioned their motives.
"Al Shabaab previously banned aid agencies and the common question is why lift the ban now? Al Shabaab has become so bankrupt that it failed to feed its own fighters," said Mogadishu's mayor Mohamud Ahmed Nur.
WFP officials in the Horn of Africa said on Monday they still needed about another $190 million to fund their emergency work in the region.