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Somalia faces a major food crisis driven by a historic drought.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The East African nation of Somalia is facing a major food crisis driven by a historic drought. The crisis is being made even worse by an ongoing insurgency by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab. The fighting is driving Somalis from their homes and complicating efforts to get food aid to people on the verge of starvation. NPR's Jason Beaubien has more.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In the trauma ward of a hospital in Baidoa, staff tend to the victims of the violence wrought by al-Shabab on a daily basis. On this day, Nurse Imin Mohammed is helping a 15-year-old sit up in a chair next to his hospital bed.

IMIN MOHAMMED: Fourteen days he is in ICU.

BEAUBIEN: He's been in the ICU for 14 days.

MOHAMMED: Yes, 14 days. Yes.

BEAUBIEN: And why is he here? What happened?

MOHAMMED: As a guess, a landmine explosion. Yes - so both legs and also - yeah - in abdomen. Yes.

BEAUBIEN: Despite severe injuries to his legs and abdomen, the doctors say this boy should make a full recovery. One of his friends, however, wasn't so fortunate and was killed in the blast. Compared to other recent attacks by al-Shabab, an explosion that only kills one person is minor. In October, a bombing at the Ministry of Education in Mogadishu claimed more than 130 lives.

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BEN BROWN: And witnesses say the car bombs struck within minutes of each other.

BEAUBIEN: Al-Shabab, in a statement, said it attacked the education ministry because it's indoctrinating children with Christian values. Over the last two decades, the group has carried out brutal attacks across the region, including a deadly siege at a shopping mall in Nairobi. Al-Shabab claims to be fighting a holy war, but Somalia's new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, says they are not true Muslims.

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PRESIDENT HASSAN SHEIKH MOHAMUD: What they are propagating is not Islam and has nothing to do with Islam. They are a group of mafia covering themselves with a blanket of Islam.

BEAUBIEN: Speaking last month at the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, President Mohamud said defeating al-Shabab is the top priority of his government. Battles between the militants and newly formed elite units of the Somali army occur nearly on a daily basis.

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MOHAMUD: It's not an overnight business to finish them. But soon we will be - we will see, and you will hear, definitely, Somalia without al-Shabab.

BEAUBIEN: A crucial part of the current offensive by the new government against al-Shabab is foreign military support, including from the United States. In May of last year, the White House authorized the deployment of roughly 450 troops to Somalia. It was the Biden administration's largest new deployment anywhere in the world. The troops, mostly special operations forces, are doing training, logistics and providing air support to the Somali army, according to the U.S. ambassador, Larry Andre Jr.

LARRY ANDRE: This is the largest offensive, the most extended offensive and the first offensive that was initiated and organized and fought by the Somalis.

BEAUBIEN: In addition to the U.S. troops, an African Union peacekeeping mission that dates back to 2007 has nearly 18,000 soldiers in Somalia. The American ambassador, Andre, in Mogadishu points out that Somalia desperately needs to rebuild much of its basic infrastructure to help address the current drought. But he recounts how a Turkish company trying to build a road was stymied by al-Shabab.

ANDRE: They lost 50 Turkish engineers to al-Shabab murderers. So that tells you that trying to rehabilitate the water management infrastructure, which could help deal with droughts, will be impossible until there is progress on the security front.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS HONKING)

BEAUBIEN: In southwestern Somalia, al-Shabab controls all of the roads into the city of Baidoa. A local shopkeeper says al-Shabab's roadblocks are driving up food prices at the same time that the region is in the midst of a deadly food crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: This merchant doesn't want his name used out of fear of retaliation by the militants. He says al-Shabab demands taxes from all the local businesses and only allows specific wholesalers to bring in goods from the capital. In the midst of a deadly food crisis, he says this is leading to even more shortages of rice, flour and other basic commodities. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PHARCYDE SONG, "SHE SAID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.