Somalia's Al-Qaeda linked rebels said Thursday they have begun moving over 12,000 starving families back into famine zones they had fled, areas where the UN have warned they will die without help.
Draconian aid restrictions imposed by the extremist Al-Shaabab are blamed for turning harsh drought across the Horn of Africa into famine in the areas they control, with 750,000 people at risk of death in coming months, the United Nations warns.
"The mujahedeen fighters, in their bid to help people displaced by drought, started working on plans to send them back home where they will be assisted, God willing," said Sheik Mahad Abu-Safiya, a senior Al-Shaabab official.
The families, estimated to number at least 50,000 people, were "taken back to their homes with packages to feed them for three months," he added.
Witnesses said the packages included rice, maize and cooking oil.
However, the Al-Shaabab have refused most international assistance, and blocked people fleeing drought and famine in Bay and Bakool regions from travelling in search of aid to Mogadishu, where relief efforts are centered.
Crowded trucks began moving people late Wednesday from camps in and around the Al-Shaabab-held town of Baidoa back to their original villages, up to 50 kilometres (30 miles) southwest of the town, officials and witnesses said.
"The process has started and we have moved the first of the 12,000 displaced families to their original locations", Mohamed Walid, another Al-Shaabab official, told reporters.
"Most of the displaced people were moved from a big camp at Baidoa airport, they were taken on long trucks," said witness Osmail Mohamed.
Al-Shaabab fighters last month pulled out of positions in the war-torn capital Mogadishu where they were battling the weak Western-backed government, but still control swathes of south and central Somalia.
The United Nations has declared six regions in south Somalia famine zones, the majority in Al-Shaabab-controlled areas.
Drought, high food prices and fighting in Somalia has increased the number of those in need of humanitarian assistance across the Horn of Africa to 13.3 million, according to the United Nations.