* Famine over in three out of six regions
* A quarter of a million still face imminent starvation
* Fighting along Kenyan border blocking aid
* Improvement had not been expected
By Katy Migiro
NAIROBI, Nov 18 (AlertNet) - Famine conditions have eased in some parts of southern Somalia, but an Islamist insurgency continues to disrupt aid to a quarter of a million people still in danger of starvation, the United Nations said on Friday.
The U.N. said a massive scaling-up of relief had helped cut malnutrition and mortality rates after a deadly combination of war and drought had left the Horn of Africa nation at the epicentre of a hunger crisis affecting up to 13 million people.
At one point, some 750,000 Somalis had faced imminent starvation. That number had fallen to 250,000, the U.N. said.
"That doesn't mean that the crisis is over because they are still in the critical phase and still have high rates of malnutrition and high death rates," Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, told Reuters.
Tens of thousands have died since April as a result of the famine.
"The gains are clearly fragile and we need to sustain, if not, increase the levels of assistance that are moving in through the whole of southern Somalia," Bowden said, adding Somalia would need well over $1 billion in emergency aid next year, with the crisis seen persisting until at least July.
"Children are still dying at a frightening rate across Somalia," said Sonia Zambakides, head of Save the Children's Somalia emergency response.
The Somalia regions of Bay, Bakool and Lower Shabelle have been downgraded to emergency levels, while Middle Shabelle and refugee populations in Mogadishu and Afgoye remain in famine conditions.
The improvement in conditions was an unexpected turnaround. The U.N. had initially thought all of southern Somalia would slide into famine by the end of the year.
The British charity Oxfam said the distribution of food vouchers to some 27,000 people in the south had been suspended after Kenya's deployment of hundreds of troops into the region five weeks ago to crush Islamist militants had led to an escalation in violence.
"If you are delaying emergency relief for two or three weeks and you have malnourished children, it can be very critical," said Geno Teofilo, a spokesman for Oxfam Somalia.
The U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator in Geneva, Elizabeth Byrs, said military action was also preventing displaced people returning home to plant crops during the rainy season.
An increasing amount of relief has found its way into al Shabaab controlled territories. The rebels, who at one point tried to ban food aid, control vast swathes of southern and central Somalia.
In October, the International Committee of the Red Cross began a huge distribution of food assistance to one million people in insurgent-ruled areas.
Recent rains have also been better than expected, boosting hopes for a good harvest early next year.
"I hope we are past the worst. The issue is really the ability to sustain that. If there is a disruption to food aid and other related activities, then it could easily tip back," said Bowden. (Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Richard Lough and Matthew Jones; AlertNet is a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit www.trust.org/alertnet)