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Boy fighters of Somalia tell of cruelty

A child from southern Somalia takes food at a camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, onWednesday. Thousands of people have arrived in Mogadishu over the past two weeks seeking assistance and the number is increasing by the day.

AP photo

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The former al-Shabab foot soldiers assigned to a drab cement housing bloc are young — too young. One is only 9, yet they were enforcers of harsh edicts from Islamist militants who are preventing thousands of Somalis from escaping famine.

The Associated Press obtained rare access to the former fighters at a government rehabilitation facility in Mogadishu, providing a view into the workings of the al-Qaida-linked group whose presence in much of Somalia is stymieing efforts to provide emergency aid. Millions risk starvation amid Somalia’s worst drought in 60 years.

The U.N. declared three new regions in Somalia famine zones on Wednesday and said the crisis is likely to spread across all of southern Somalia in coming weeks. Getting aid to the country has been difficult because al-Shabab controls much of the most desperate areas.

The hardline militant group routinely recruits young teenagers, kidnapping them. Last week, three teenage fighters surrendered to the African Union military force during a military offensive.

The most recent arrival at the rehab center, 17-year-old Abshir Mohammed Abdi, said “there was no life, no prospects” inside al-Shabab, which he belonged to for 1 1/2 years before escaping to the camp last week. Abdi is from the country’s south — Kismayo — where Somalia’s famine is hitting hardest.

Abdi said many there are suffering, with al-Shabab fighters trying to stop the flow of refugees toward food, an exodus that threatens to diminish the population from which al-Shabab draws conscripts and collects taxes. Al-Shabab has denied a famine is taking place.

Somalis who have fled the famine zones and reached Mogadishu told the AP that militants are threatening refugees who leave the south and often stopping — and sometimes killing — the men, leading to a disproportionate number of women and children in camps in the capital.

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