In a press release issued on Wednesday, the ICRC said it was stepping up its emergency operation to assist more than half a million people in areas affected by the drought and armed violence in Somalia and Ethiopia over the next five months.

In co-ordination with other humanitarian organisations and in partnership with the Somali Red Crescent, the ICRC is focusing its assistance activities on southern Somalia where the drought has hit hardest, the ICRC said.

It added: "This week the organisation has started distributing food to 48,000 people in Bakool and to 54,000 in the Gedo and Bay regions.

"This help will continue until the next harvest in July, although the success of the crop will depend on the results of the rainy season due to begin in April."

'Precarious situation'

Commenting on the situation, Pascal Hundt, ICRC's head of delegation in Somalia, said: " In this difficult and precarious situation, we are working with the Somali Red Crescent to bring assistance to the most vulnerable people in isolated rural areas."

The ICRC is also helping more
than 300,000 people in Ethiopia

The ICRC has been active in Somalia since 1977, and carries out more than 300 water, health, agricultural and veterinary projects each year.

The organisation is also helping more than 300,000 people in Ethiopia by improving access to drinking water, providing free treatment for livestock, distributing food and seed, and providing medical items for health facilities.

In Kenya, the ICRC is supporting the efforts of the Kenya Red Cross Society, the country's national disaster response organisation, and has made six trucks available for the National Society to use as part of its relief effort.