Somalia has become the most dangerous place in the world for relief workers to operate as none of the sides in the deadly fighting that has raged across the capital Mogadishu in recent weeks is respecting the rules of war, the United Nations humanitarian chief has warned.
John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the Security Council on Tuesday that the fighting in Somalia is probably the worst in 16 years, since the impoverished country stopped having a functioning national government.
More than 320,000 people have fled Mogadishu since the start of February, and hundreds of others are reported to have been killed in the past week alone as the violence escalated, Holmes told a closed-door briefing, according to the text of his speech.
Most of the people fleeing the city have virtually no possessions, and some are being forced to "rent" the use of space under trees for shelter, Holmes added.
They lack many basics such as food and water.
Violence in Mogadishu has dramatically increased since the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), backed by Ethiopian forces, dislodged the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) from the capital and much of the country at the end of last year.
Clan-based militias have also been involved in the clashes.
Holmes said civilians are being caught in the crossfire, with all sides "equally responsible" for failing to stay within international law.
Heavily populated residential areas face constant shelling, and a hospital also appeared to be deliberately targeted by shelling and artillery fire.
"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," said Holmes, who is also Emergency Relief Coordinator for the world body.
The humanitarian situation in the southern and central parts of Somalia has been exacerbated by outbreaks of cholera and acute watery diarrhoea, with the latter is estimated to be responsible for more than 600 deaths in recent months.
Later, Holmes told reporters that the violence has been so intense that UN agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are extremely limited in their access to suffering civilians, with as many as four out of five Somalis in need out of reach.
He criticised the TFG and local authorities for making it even harder for aid workers to carry out their daily work by restricting access to area hospitals and imposing unnecessary delays and problems at checkpoints.
He stressed the need for a ceasefire as soon as possible or, failing that, a commitment by all sides in the conflict to respect international humanitarian law so that civilians are not targeted or left as victims through indiscriminate attacks.
The UN has appealed for 262 million dollars for relief efforts in Somalia, but Holmes said only about a third of that target has been reached so far and he urged donors to contribute more liberally.