By Patrick Worsnip
UNITED NATIONS, April 24 (Reuters) - Somalia's government has promised the United Nations it will clear away obstacles to providing badly needed aid to thousands of Somalis who have fled fighting in Mogadishu, U.N. officials said on Tuesday.
Conditions for refugees have steadily worsened in Somalia, where clashes between allied Somali-Ethiopian forces and Islamist gunmen are hampering aid agencies in delivering vital food, clean water and shelter.
Senior Somali officials and U.N. aid agencies met in the southern Somali town of Baidoa on Monday after U.N. resident coordinator Eric Laroche warned last week of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.
Roads and airstrips had been closed, authorities had failed to clear food shipments for distribution and aid workers had been harassed at checkpoints, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told the Security Council.
"Recent administrative directives" by Somalia's interim government had also obstructed aid efforts, he said in a briefing to the 15-nation body.
But at Monday's meeting the Somali officials said their government supported aid delivery, the country's health minister had been named to coordinate with providers and all airstrips were now open to them, Holmes said.
"I very much welcome this, if it is confirmed, and look forward to it being translated into real actions on the ground to enable humanitarian staff to access relief supplies."
In Geneva, U.N. World Food Program (WFP) spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume said: "We hope and think that the problem has been solved."
READY TO MOVE
A WFP convoy was turned back this month between Mogadishu and Afgooye, 20 miles (30 km) to the west, where agencies now say from 40,000 to 50,000 of the displaced are gathered, after authorities said the food had to be inspected in the capital.
"We are going to try to go to Afgooye. What needs to be done now is the instruction has to be given to the checkpoints. That might take a while," Berthiaume said.
Shelling and artillery fire shook northern Mogadishu on Tuesday, the seventh day of fighting in which local officials say some 300 people have been killed. Up to half a million people have fled the city since fighting erupted in February.
Food from the CARE aid group for 60,000 people in Galgaduud and South Mudug, north of the capital, was ready to move from warehouses in Mogadishu when security allowed and two planes carrying non-food aid had arrived in Baidoa, Holmes said.
The World Health Organization said in Geneva it had sent health and water and sanitation experts to Nairobi, but they could not enter Somalia until security improved.
Some 16,579 cases of acute watery diarrhea -- including some confirmed cases of cholera -- and 593 deaths have been reported since December in 10 regions, according to the agency's latest figures.
"Civilians in Mogadishu are paying an intolerable price for the absence of political progress and dialogue and the failure of all parties to abide by the rules of warfare," Holmes told the Security Council.
He also appealed to donors to step up their contributions towards a U.N. appeal for $262 million. Almost enough had been given for food but hardly any for health and shelter, he said.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva)
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