Murder of an old man symbolises Somali ills

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IN THE inner courtyard of Sheikh Mursal's house about 100 veiled women kneeled and prayed. Sometimes over the sighing chant a single voice rose to a hysterical shriek, and the others held the distraught woman and calmed her down.

In the early hours of yesterday morning, gunmen climbed over the wall of the sheikh's house. His brother raised the alarm but the gunmen seized the gun from the guard. His tearful young son said yesterday that the old man came out of his room and the gunmen shot him. He died three hours later after a Red Cross doctor had tried to operate by the light of a torch. A 10-year-old girl was also killed.

Sheikh Mursal had been the mullah of Bardera for more than 20 years and was deeply respected. He had no political role but was the man the town turned to in these terrible times. The town was in a state of shock yesterday and tense with anger. Hundreds of people crowded round the house where the sheikh had died and the female relations gathered to console each other in the courtyard.

In the town, groups of people stood together along the muddy main street and looked round suspiciously at outsiders. At midday the sheikh's grave was being dug in the small shady walled cemetery where his six predecessors are buried. 'This is a bad history day for this town,' said one local Somali. 'Everyone respected the sheikh, he was a mullah for all the tribes.'

Five suspects were captured early yesterday morning and locked in a container by the river. But they seemed unharmed. Colonel Barre, one of the commanders of the Somali National Front, the local clan army, said he would not comment until all his investigations were completed.

Suspicion has fallen on Al-Itahad, the Muslim fundamentalist group, which is strong in a nearby town. But others rule out a religious motive and the sheikh's son's account suggests robbery. Many people had deposited money at the mullah's house because they trusted him, and the gunmen are reported to have got away with 'seven bags of money'.

Bardera, 127 miles south-west of Baidoa, is rapidly becoming the new target for the armed looters who have fled before the US advance. 'We are waiting and praying they will come soon,' said a Somali aid worker. 'We see the American planes in the air and we shout at them, 'don't stay up there, come down'.'

The town is dominated by the fear of the gunmen, and on the night before the sheikh died a Red Cross feeding centre was attacked. One of the attackers was killed by guards but five starving people were shot. Yesterday their pathetic, thin bodies lay heavily bandaged on the floor of the feeding centre - a horrible caricature of all the evils that have settled on this town.

But the death-rate is dropping. 'Some weeks ago we employed 129 grave diggers and 40 body collectors,' said Nina Winquist of the Red Cross. 'Now we have only 60 grave diggers and 20 body collectors. They collect about 40 bodies a day, a few months ago it was more than 200 per day.' Other relief agencies put the total at double that number.

In the afternoon the body collectors patrol in search of the living - the victims of famine who have just staggered into town - and bring them to the feeding centres. Many thousands of people are still dependent on daily food rations in the town, while in the surrounding area it is assumed that people are equally hungry.

Bardera is now in the position Baidoa was until Wednesday - vulnerable to the armed gangs who will try to loot what they can before the marines arrive.

MOGADISHU - Gunmen pillaged relief food delivered under US and French escort to Somali villages yesterday, underscoring the challenges facing UN troops mandated to get food to the starving, Reuter reports.

Bandits, who have preyed on food aid for the starving, struck in at least two of four villages soon after the departure of US marines and French legionnaires who escorted a food convoy into the interior for the first time.

Witnesses said that the gunmen stole bags of freshly delivered grain brought in under escort by the troops, who on Wednesday had pushed into nearby Baidoa, 250km (150 miles) north-west of Mogadishu.

Aid agency workers have been pressing the US-led force to hurry into Baidoa and other main towns in the country's interior.

(Photograph omitted)