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Somali militia warns on plan to boost troops

THESE are difficult days for the United Nations in Somalia. On Friday, two observers were shot at the port and on Saturday Mike Aaronson, the overseas director of Save the Children, took the organisation to task for its 'pathetic' record of inaction over the political and humanitarian catastrophe in the country.

Now the most powerful clan militia in Somalia has said it opposes a UN plan to send more troops to protect food deliveries for more than a million starving Somalis.

Aid workers fear that without support from General Mohamed Farrah Aideed's United Somali Congress, the arrival of the troops would spark new fighting.

The UN's special envoy to Somalia said the international body would proceed slowly and win the support of warring factions before sending any additional troops.

In Friday's incident, Major Mostafa Sidki, an Egyptian, was hit in the right shoulder and a bullet grazed the head of Major Frantisek Petras, a Czech. Major Sidki was only saved, according to Mogadishu sources, because Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) had received a supply of blood the previous day. There is a desperate shortage of blood in the city, and Somalis must rely on family members if they need a transfusion.

Yet it is not only the UN that hesitates on the edge of this snakepit, having gingerly poked in a stick or two. The United States, in its airlift much trumpeted overseas but little noticed in Somalia, appears intent on dodging the issue on how to distribute food to those who need it in the country.

And one can understand the hesitation. Here, to acquire a gun is a means to eat as well as a means to kill. Warlords do not have complete control of their factions. Agreements can work, a ceasefire in Mogadishu is broadly holding, but all transportation of food is liable to a huge loss through armed looting.

Some aid workers with long experience of getting food to the weakest argue that only a big military operation can bring a level of security to the country. Yet one can hear the same people argue that the US and UN are putting the established operations at risk by any hasty intervention.

There are few aid personnel in Mogadishu who would take issue with Mr Aaronson's tirade. The UN is guilty of having turned a deaf ear while circumstances deteriorated to their present, almost unmanageable, proportions.

Quite how to lever the country out of the morass, no one really knows. But one guiding principle must be that any agency that has managed to bring relief to the weakest has done so by employing Somalis, and by accepting, albeit it reluctantly, a range of practices which in a country with some predictable structure would be regarded as unacceptable. These relate to matters of employment, transport, wastage and almost any other facet of food distribution.

The degradation of a town like Baidoa, which has drawn in thousands of starving people to a place of almost unimaginable agony and suffering, cries out for intervention. A world that believes in any kind of decency cannot stand by while this happens.

The charity Concern is appealing for volunteers to work at its feeding centre in Baidoa.