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Troops move to secure Baidoa

BAIDOA - A heavily armed convoy carrying 670 US marines and French legionnaires left Mogadishu yesterday towards this bandit-besieged town in the heart of Somalia's famine belt. The US Special Envoy, Robert Oakley, indicated they would arrive today.

Securing Baidoa is considered a key move in the multinational, US-led force's mission, which began a week ago, to ensure that food aid is protected from marauding gunmen.

Mr Oakley told journalists in Baidoa: 'After midnight tonight, be very, very careful . . . Some of you were lucky when the marines landed in Mogadishu.' The marines have said they nearly fired on a lorry-load of journalists waiting for them when they arrived at the port before dawn last Wednesday.

Security initially improved in Mogadishu after the marines arrived on a UN-sanctioned mission of mercy, but the armed looters who had long plagued the capital have begun to return.

The bandits' resilience and obstinacy presages the difficulty foreign troops could face in securing this city of 80,000 people, about half of them refugees from ravaged rural areas.

Although Baidoa was generally quiet overnight, in the past few weeks it has seen repeated attacks on relief agencies' compounds. The assaults escalated in recent days as the looters apparently sought last-ditch windfalls before the troops arrived.

The escalating violence forced some relief centres to close, leaving desperately ill children without daily care. Relief workers say Baidoa's daily death toll dipped below 50 last week from its high point of about 300, but has risen to 100 a day since the marines landed.

There has been mounting friction between the US military and aid workers, who want the relief operation to move faster.

MOGADISHU - A Somali woman beaten and stripped by a mob for allegedly fraternising with French soldiers is in jail on charges of suspected prostitution, security officials said yesterday.

Three Mogadishu newspapers criticised French legionnaires for violating social customs in the Muslim country, saying a 'French mercenary' had paid the woman for sexual favours.

An official of Gen Mohamed Farah Aideed's National Security Service identified her as Leila Haji Sadiq, 22. He said a religious court would try her. Newspapers said she could face the death penalty. A Somali reporter who visited her in jail said her face was badly swollen and she was unable to speak.