Peter Hansen, the Danish leader of the team, and his 23-member group went straight into a meeting with the self-styled president, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, whose vicious feud with his arch-rival General Mohamed Farah Aideed has killed and maimed thousands. A fragile ceasefire is just about holding, but poor security has virtually halted relief efforts in a country where at least 200 people now die of starvation each day.
But as members of the mission set to work, the UN secretary-general's special representative for Somalia admitted they were nine months too late. 'If only we had intervened before November,' Mohamed Sahnoun said in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. 'Because of that delay we now pay the price.'
The mission's main task is to assess the need for security forces to provide escort and protection for a huge international relief operation. People are dying within sight of port warehouses overflowing with grain. Gunmen have prevented the food moving from the port for distribution to the needy.
A senior member of the UN team said food was able to leave the port yesterday and the priority was now to increase security on the roads to outlying districts. After months of indecision and near indifference, the UN is edging towards military action to keep the gunmen at bay and deliver food to millions of starving people.
John Major yesterday came under pressure to use Britain's EC presidency to galvanise Europe into action on Somalia.
The French Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, who has just returned from Somalia, described what he found as 'hell on earth'. He told BBC Radio's The World At One that conditions were 'certainly worse' than Biafra in the 1960s, when civil war in Nigeria killed half a million people. 'We . . . need to help those people. I want to appeal to the British president of the EC - we must double the volume of help,' he said.