An exceptional harvest after good rains and food deliveries by aid agencies have ended famine in Somalia although conditions remain fragile and could worsen, the United Nations said on Friday.
The U.N. declared famine in two parts of southern Somalia last July and extended the famine warning in September to six out of eight regions in the anarchic Horn of Africa country.
The U.N. said initially 750,000 Somalis faced imminent starvation and lowered this to 250,000 by November. Six months after famine was declared, 4 million Somalis were in need of aid and the U.N. said the number now stood at 2.34 million.
The gains are fragile and will be reversed without continued support, said Mark Bowden, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia.
There are 1.7 million people in southern Somalia still in crisis. Millions of people still need food, clean water, shelter and other assistance to survive and the situation is expected to deteriorate in May, he said in a statement.
While aid deliveries to some 180,000 people in camps in the capital Mogadishu have improved the situation there, fighting in southern and central Somalia is still hampering food deliveries to the worst-hit areas.
Government forces have been fighting Islamist rebels for the past five years, while Kenyan and Ethiopian forces both moved into the country last year to help fight the al Qaeda-linked militants al Shabaab.
The fighting, combined with attacks on aid workers and a history of aid being manipulated for political gain, means Somalia is one of the toughest countries for relief agencies to operate in.
The U.N. said the latest harvest in Somalia was double the average of the past 17 years, and this had lowered food prices, though mortality rates in southern Somalia were still among the highest in the world.
Al Shabaab expelled the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Monday, one of the few international aid agencies delivering food aid to areas under rebel control, accusing it of providing out-of-date food to women and children.
The ICRC said it regretted the decision as it halted a programme that had given food to more than 1.2 million people between June and December 2011. The ICRC said 6 percent of the food provided had deteriorated and was withdrawn, or destroyed by al Shabaab.
The crisis is not over, said Jose Graziano da Silva, director general of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation. It can only be resolved with a combination of rains and continued, coordinated, long-term actions that build up the resilience of the population and link relief with development.
(Editing by David Clarke and Maria Golovnina)