Food will reach Somalia too late

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THE MASSIVE consignment of food the United States has promised for the millions of Somalis facing starvation because of famine and civil war will not arrive in time to save tens of thousands on the brink of death.

On 14 August President George Bush ordered 145,000 tons of food aid to be made available, and the White House said the Pentagon would begin emergency airlifts 'as soon as possible'.

However, the shipments will be covered by the budget for the next fiscal year, beginning on 1 October, according to the US embassy spokesman, the Kenyan capital, and so are unlikely to be at sea before mid-October. They could not be expected to reach Somalia before early November.

Aid agencies say two million people, almost a third of the population, are in imminent danger of starvation. Hundreds are dying each day.

Food is arriving in the country through the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Programme and charities including Save the Children and Care, but in nothing like the quantities needed.

The US mission, Operation Provide Relief, gained a degree of momentum yesterday with the departure from Mombasa to Wajir in northern Kenya of 18 flights by Hercules aircraft. However, doubts about the ability of the mission to make a speedy impact within Somalia were sharpened by continuing delays in the formulation of a strategy for introducing large shipments.

Brigadier General Frank Libutti, commander of the Provide Relief task force, said on Friday that Wajir would not be used as a staging post for the transport of food into Somalia. The 15-20 tons that each Hercules transports to Wajir will be used to feed Somalian refugees in the camps there, as well as drought-stricken Kenyans. Relief flights will fly from Mombasa directly to Somali airstrips though there are no plans to fly to Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and the destination and date of the first flight has not been determined. Baidoa, 150 miles north-west of Mogadishu, once a town of 60,000 people, now destroyed by famine and war, is the most likely destination.

General Libutti has stated that his brief is to transport food to fixed points. His security concerns focus on the protection of his personnel and he intends to leave distribution of food to relief organisations. But these do not have the capacity to handle consignments of the size the US plans to deliver.

The few aid organisations established in Somalia have an understanding of the situation on the ground which the US force would need to draw on. Yet their successes, remarkable as they are, are achieved through relatively small-scale operations. It is hard to see how the broad US aim of ultimately bringing massive relief to Somalia can be achieved through these modest-sized agencies.

A Somali on Teesside saw the skeletal figure of his sister on the television news recently. Mahdi Ali, 72, chairman of the region's Somali community, has lived in Middlesbrough for 45 years. His mother and another sister starved to death last year.

'I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw my poor sister Zahra; she was in a terrible state. If I could raise the money I would go to Somalia tomorrow to try and find Zahra and take her somewhere safe.'

(Photograph omitted)