CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday urged the world not to be "indifferent" to the Horn of Africa famine, as more than 12 million people in the region suffer from the worst drought in decades.
"We must not be indifferent to the tragedy of the hungry and the thirsty," the pope said in an address to hundreds of pilgrims following the weekly Angelus prayer at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, just outside Rome.
"Many brothers and sisters in the Horn of Africa are suffering these days from the dramatic consequences of the famine, aggravated by war and the lack of stable institutions," he said, calling for "compassion" and "fraternal solidarity."
Commenting on Sunday's Bible passage on the miracle of Jesus Christ multiplying loaves and fish, he said: "Jesus reminds us of our responsibility -- to do everything we can to help those who are hungry and thirsty."
The United Nations has declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia but the effects of the drought have been felt more widely across the war-torn country, as well as in parts of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
"It is an immense task. In this time of holiday, let us not forget to open our hands and our hearts to come to the aid of those who need it," the pope said.
"Let us give food and share our bread with the needy," he added.
Aid agencies have stepped up efforts to aid the worst affected from the drought in Somalia, with the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) starting an airlift of food aid into the capital Mogadishu last week despite battles in the city.
But charities say more international donations are needed and relief efforts have been hampered by the combat, as well as a ban on some humanitarian agencies by the Islamist group Al-Shebab which controls much of southern Somalia.
The Vatican's official daily, Osservatore Romano, said there was "a race against time" to save the people of Somalia and said the international community should take a more active mediation role between rival Somali clans.
"If international players do not manage to do this, then even a massive humanitarian effort by UN agencies, including the WFP's airlift, and by non-governmental organisations will at best slow the emergency," it said.
US President Barack Obama on Friday called for an international response to avoid a "looming humanitarian crisis in Eastern Africa."
"I think it hasn't got as much attention here in the United States as it deserves," he said after meeting with four African leaders in Washington.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels have denied there is a famine in Somalia, saying the crisis is being exploited by external enemies.
Shebab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage has claimed that local Muslims are adequately addressing the drought crisis, saying in a speech on rebel radio that there is no need for assistance from "an outside enemy or non-Muslims."
He said the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been streaming across the Somali border into the mainly Christian countries of Ethiopia and Kenya in search for food were being lured there "so that their faith can be destroyed."
Battered by a relentless civil war since 1991, the plight of Somalis has often been referred to as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Nearly half of Somalia's estimated 10 million people are believed to be in need of aid.
The UN on Friday said it was looking for $2.48 billion (1.72 billion euros) for 12.4 million affected people. The UN children's agency UNICEF has said 1.25 million children are in urgent need of life-saving support in southern Somalia.
The UN says tens of thousands of people have already died due to the drought.
© 2011 AFP