NAIROBI, Kenya — The militant group Al Shabab killed 20 people and burned seven trucks carrying food supplies in central Somalia, authorities and state media said on Saturday, in the latest deadly attack to rock the Horn of Africa nation gripped by catastrophic hunger and worsening drought.
Despite repeated American drone strikes and a long-running African Union offensive against the group, Al Shabab has intensified its attacks on eastern Africa, increasingly spreading its financial tentacles and continuing to control large swathes of Somalia, which is on the verge of famine amid the worst drought in four decades.
The attack took place overnight on Friday as vehicles ferried passengers, food aid and commercial goods between the towns of Beledweyne and Mahas in the central Hiran region. Some of those killed included women and children, the Somali National News Agency reported. Two vehicles carrying those who came to rescue the victims were also targeted with improvised explosive devices, Somali National Television said.
Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, but said they had targeted vehicles ferrying supplies for members of a local security force backed by the Somali government, according to Somali Memo, a news website affiliated with the group.
The Somali government condemned the attack on Saturday and promised to “respond strongly” to the group. Abdirahman Abdishakur, the special Somali presidential envoy for the drought response, called the attack “devastating,” adding that it came on the heels of the Shabab destroying water wells, electricity and telecommunications masts in the area in recent days.
“I call for immediate support to these communities that face severe drought,” he said in a post on Twitter.
The United States embassy in Somalia said it was deeply concerned by the attacks, too. “By denying food to the hungry and destroying wells of the thirsty al-Shabaab has once again shown its disregard for human life,” the embassy said in a tweet.
The attack comes just two weeks after Al Shabab carried out a 30-hour siege in a hotel in the Somali capital, killing 21 people and injuring 117 others. The Qaeda-linked group has been ramping up its activities in recent months, targeting both civilian and military outfits, and carrying out a daring incursion into neighboring Ethiopia in late July.
After his election in May, Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, promised to fight and defeat the group militarily, ideologically and financially. In recent weeks, Somali security forces began carrying out a special operation to purge Al Shabab from the Hiran region.
Ali Abdullahi Hussein, the president of the semiautonomous Hirshabelle State under which Hiran falls, said the Shabab suffered setbacks during the recent military exercise, and promised after Saturday’s attack to “strengthen the widening operation to eliminate the ruthless Al Shabab.”
Even as the government fights the group, it is faced with the impact of the drought. About 7.1 million Somalis, or nearly half of the country’s population, are now hungry, according to the World Food Program, with many more people facing rising food and fuel prices stemming from the war in Ukraine.
One million Somalis have been displaced by the drought, the United Nations says, and about 213,000 are facing life-threatening levels of hunger. The country is now bracing for a fifth consecutive failed rainy season, and the U.N. says that famine could be imminent if livestock and crops continue to fail and urgent help isn’t provided to those affected.
Al Shabab’s attacks deepen this misery. Alinor Abdi, a resident of the capital, Mogadishu, said that his former teacher and mentor was among those killed on Saturday in Hiran.
It is “proof that Al Shabab does not differentiate between civilians and combatants,” Mr. Abdi said. “It is a sad day.”