UN troops to defend Somalia's lifeline

NAIROBI - The United Nations clinched a deal yesterday to send 500 armed guards to Somalia to control Mogadishu port and escort food convoys to millions of starving people, a top UN official said.

'We have today reached an agreement with Somali leaders who had previously rejected the deployment of 500 security personnel in Mogadishu,' the UN special representative for Somalia, Mohamed Sahnoun, told a news conference in Nairobi.

Mr Sahnoun flew to Nairobi to announce the deal after signing a formal agreement with General Mohamed Farah Aideed, the Mogadishu warlord whose men control much of the divided city.

'We agreed that the security personnel are for emergency relief operations in the port of Mogadishu and the national airport and for escorting convoys to food and distribution centres in Mogadishu,' he said. Mr Sahnoun said he did not have a date for the deployment of the first Blue Berets, but thought it would take a maximum of three weeks.

Mr Sahnoun, who signed the agreement at General Aideed's military headquarters at Bardera, 210 miles west of Mogadishu, made clear the UN troops would not be peace-keepers and that their activities would be limited to the capital. 'We at the UN cannot ensure law and order in the whole of Somalia, for this we would need thousands of troops. (These) are not peace-keeping forces but for the security of humanitarian assistance in Mogadishu,' he added.

Hundreds of people are dying of hunger every day in the Horn of Africa nation after months of savage fighting between clans. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country as refugees. General Aideed's men control Mogadishu port but have often held up relief supplies, demanded money and looted shipments. They have sometimes demanded as much as 50 per cent of the food to allow it to pass through the port.

Babies and skeletal children, so emaciated they suffer brain damage, have been dropping dead within sight of warehouses overflowing with grain. UN officials have described it as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

The agreement was a personal triumph for Mr Sahnoun, who has fought hard since his appointment to re-establish a UN role in Somalia and make the world wake up to the crisis. The UN pulled its staff out of Somalia during fierce fighting in the months before Mohamed Siad Barre, the former president, lost power in January 1991. The country then plunged into anarchy as rival clans turned on each other.

General Aideed had strongly opposed UN military intervention in Somalia for fear it would give a new lease of life to his main rival, the self-styled President, Ali Mahdi Mohamed. A feud between the two men killed or maimed at least 30,000 people until the UN brokered a shaky ceasefire a few months ago. General Aideed controls some 60 per cent of the shattered capital.

UN sources said there was no accommodation in the ruined capital, once an attractive port city, and the troops would most probably be housed on a naval vessel offshore.

Mr Sahnoun said about 80,000 tons of food had arrived in the country since January, about a quarter of the minimum needed.

Rebels are refusing to guarantee the safety of an emergency food airlift to some 300,000 people in the southern Sudanese capital of Juba, aid workers said yesterday, AP reports.

'We are still trying to solve this diplomatically,' said Thomas Ekvall, head of UN Operation Lifeline Sudan. 'But if it is impossible, we will have to go ahead without it.'

The last relief flight into Juba was on 18 July by the Lutheran World Federation, which has been delivering emergency supplies to the town since 1988. Juba has been the government's main stronghold since the civil war erupted in 1983. Its people, 230,000 of whom fled to Juba to escape the fighting in the countryside, are totally dependent on relief food for survival.