NAIROBI, Kenya - A U.S. official says the famine in Somalia has killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5.
The United Nations has said that tens of thousands of people have died in the Horn of Africa's drought and famine, but the U.S. estimate is the first precise death toll offered in the crisis.
Nancy Lindborg, an official with the U.S. government aid arm, told a congressional committee in Washington on Wednesday that the U.S. estimates that more than 29,000 children under age 5 have died in the last 90 days in southern Somalia.
The U.N. on Wednesday declared three new regions in Somalia famine zones. Out of a population of roughly 7.5 million, the U.N. says 3.2 million Somalis are in need of immediate lifesaving assistance.
Getting aid to the country has been difficult because al Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab controls much of the country's most desperate areas.
Even before Somalia's worst drought in 60 years, many of the country's children have only known strife during their lives.
At a government rehabilitation facility in Mogadishu last week, The Associated Press obtained rare access to former al-Shabab child soldiers, providing a unique view into the workings of the group whose presence in much of Somalia is stymieing international efforts to provide emergency aid.
The former fighters 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 hardline militant group routinely recruits young teenagers, kidnapping them from schools and forcibly removing them from homes. 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 1½ 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 outflow that threatens to diminish the population from which al-Shabab draws its conscripts and collects its taxes. Al-Shabab has denied a famine is taking place.
"Even with women and children suffering from drought, al-Shabab would stop them, stop them, stop them until they couldn't stop them anymore," Abdi said, suggesting that the wave of famine refugees was too much for the militants to stanch.
Somalis who have fled the famine zones and reached Mogadishu told 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 displaced-persons camps in the capital. One of the young former fighters, who spoke to AP through an interpreter while standing under a shade tree at the rehabilitation facility, said al-Shabab also uses threats to keep Somali men within the famine zones.
"What they would tell the men is that your women and children would be killed if you leave," said Ali Hassan, who like many of the former teen fighters wore a colorful track suit that looked like it was made by Nike but instead said "Nile Sports."
The two dozen young men, mostly teens, said there were killers among them, though no one dared specify who. One bearded fighter in his 20s suggested that he had carried out beheadings.
What is striking about the former al-Shabab members is how young they are. The youngest at the center is Liban Mohammed, a shy boy of 9. Al-Shabab used him as a spy.
Most children recruited by armed groups in Somalia appear to be between 12 and 18, though some are as young as 8, Amnesty International said in a report last month. Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 is a war crime, the group noted.
"This is a never-ending conflict, where children are experiencing unimaginable horrors on a daily basis," said Amnesty's Michelle Kagari. "They risk becoming a lost generation if the world continues to ignore the war crimes affecting so many of them."
The children, who come from a desperately poor region where government can't function, are lured into joining al-Shabab through the promises of phones and money. Forcible recruitment and kidnapping are common. The government also stands accused of using child soldiers.
One official who is helping watch after the former child soldiers said executions were a part of al-Shabab's recruitment process, in order to instill fear. Many saw their friends die, he said.
"What they were promised was riches, and as the drought kicked in they were given handfuls of rice as payment," said the man, who did not give his name.
Hassan said he had fought alongside Arab militants and fighters from Kenya, and that he had seen Omar Hammami, an American al-Shabab leader known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki. Hassan and many of the other teens said al-Shabab treats their youngest soldiers very poorly.
"We don't matter. We're taught how to load and unload a gun. I want a future for myself," Hassan said, explaining why he left.
Al-Shabab is split into about three main factions, the former fighters said. One top leader, often referred to as al-Shabab's No. 2, is Sheik Mukhtar Robow, who is seen by the international community as a more moderate al-Shabab leader, one that aid groups have been able to work with in the past.
A leader like Robow could be a way for aid groups banned from southern Somalia to find a way in to distribute food aid. But one former fighter, 24-year-old Abdullahi Dahir, said aid groups shouldn't trust Robow's word, even if he tells them that they can enter.
The teens seem content at the government-run facility, if not a little bored. There is little for them to do and rehabilitation programs are not yet up to full speed, despite the program being more than six months old.
Government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman said that more than 50 al-Shabab fighters have defected and joined government forces since the drought began. He said the government needs more money to cover the needs of the program.
For the former fighters, once they're in, it is their only way forward. Marked men -- or boys, in many cases -- they must stay in government-controlled territory.
"If I walk out of here I'll be killed," said one former fighter who didn't give his name. "Where can I go?"