Somali Islamist rebels accused the United Nations on Thursday of exaggerating the severity of the drought gripping the south of the country and of politicizing the humanitarian crisis there.

The United Nations on Wednesday declared famine in two pockets of southern Somalia, saying that 3.7 million people are at risk of starvation and that it is launching its biggest-ever relief effort.

The south of the Horn of Africa country is largely controlled by the militant group al-Shabab, a group linked to al-Qaeda whose four-year-old insurgency is widely blamed for worsening the effects of the drought.

Al-Shabab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage told reporters that the U.N. declaration “is totally, 100 percent wrong and baseless propaganda,” adding, “Yes, there is drought, but the conditions are not as bad as they say.”

“They have another objective, and it wouldn’t surprise us if they were politicizing the situation,” Rage said.

If the international community does not tackle the emergency swiftly, the U.N. has said, the famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia.

This month, the rebels lifted a ban on food aid that they had said created dependency.

The U.N. World Food Program, which suspended its operations in the south in January of last year, said Thursday that it plans to start airlifts into the capital, Mogadishu, within days.

— Reuters