Embarrassed UN acts on Somalia

STUNG by bitter criticism from the United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, that it is blind to the horrors of war and starvation in Somalia, the international community is preparing to send four battalions of peace-keepers to the country.

Thanks to a raging civil war between rival clans and sub-clans, drought and the collapse of all civil authority, more than a third of Somalia's 6 million people are likely to starve to death before the year's end, according to relief experts.

The peace-keeping force is needed to ensure that the enormous airlift of humanitarian aid which relief agencies are trying to get to the country gets safely to the starving population. Efforts to get food aid to outlying areas have been held up by the warring factions in Somalia, and only a few international agencies, such as the Red Cross, have dared to operate outside Mogadishu. The planned UN force would comprise four 500-person battalions to be dispersed to four regions of the country, diplomats say.

The UN has itself been trying to get 500 security personnel into the capital for months, but General Mohammed Farah Aidid, one of the clan leaders, has threatened to kill them if they are deployed. Now, after months of patient diplomacy by a special UN envoy, Mohammed Sahnoun, the organisation has been shaken into taking a much tougher stance against the clan leaders.

The Security Council at first balked at sending a peace-keeping force to Somalia, but has been chastened by the country's deepening crisis and the public rebuke by Mr Boutros-Ghali, that it was devoting resources to Yugoslavia, the 'rich man's war', ignoring an equally horrendous conflict in Africa.

In response, the Council adopted a resolution in favour of an airlift of aid to Mogadishu airport, and it is expected to show little resistance to the dangerous and costly plan to use peace-keeping forces to protect deliveries of aid in a civil war. However, in a report to the Council last week, Mr Boutros-Ghali wrote that the 'complexity of the situation . . . combined with almost total absence of central, regional or local government, pose enormous operational difficulties for the United Nations'.

The airport has not been used to deliver aid since 1 June, when bandits stole six tons of food aid at gunpoint. Mr Sahnoun has drawn up plans to begin an emergency airlift immediately, however, without waiting for military and aid experts due to arrive in the country on Wednesday.

'Kids are dying right now,' Mr Sahnoun said, pointing out that, with 1.5 million people on the brink of death from hunger and another 4.5 million nearing starvation, the entire population was at risk.

Despite months of warning from respected international aid organisations, the UN has been caught off guard and embarrassed by Somalia's slide into chaos. Much of the trouble in the country can be laid at the feet of superpower rivalry in Africa, in which the Soviet Union and the United States saw the country on the Horn of Africa as a strategic asset.

(Photograph omitted)

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