The dramatic announcement by the White House on Friday night was welcomed yesterday by aid organisations working in Mogadishu, which have been battling to bring the attention of the world to its worst catastrophe. The UN has faced heavy criticism for its past failure to respond to the crisis.
Up to 4.5 million people in the country, almost three-quarters of the population, are on the verge of starvation. Hundreds of thousands have died since January 1991, when the Mogadishu government was overthrown and anarchy, civil war and famine replaced the dictatorship of Siad Barre.
Armed bandits have been intercepting relief supplies since a ceasefire in May between the forces of the self- styled new president, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, and his main rival, General Mohamed Farah Aideed. Although both men have generally been observing the ceasefire, many of those carrying weapons in Somalia are answerable to neither clan chieftain. James Kunder, the head of the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, said after a recent visit to Mogadishu he was outraged to find 7,000 tons of UN food in a dockside warehouse while people starved to death less than a mile away.
The Washington initiative represents a vindication of those agencies which have been arguing for more than a year that the only way to deal with the disaster is to flood the country with food, so that some at least would reach those in most desperate need.
Save the Children yesterday called on the European Community to match the US effort with massive new food pledges. The charity's director-general, Nicholas Hinton, said: 'Throughout the crisis there has been a disastrous lack of political will and determination at the highest levels . . . The countries of the EC should stop concentrating on the security situation alone and act immediately to get more food to the starving people of Somalia.' Save the Children estimates southern Somalia needs 40,000 tons of food per month.
The White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, indicated on Friday that the Americans had decided to tackle the food and security problems together. 'Because armed bands are stealing and hoarding food, as well as attacking international relief workers, the primary challenge that the international community faces is the delivery of relief supplies,' Mr Fitzwater said.
The United States is proposing that the UN convene a donors' conference, which would include representatives of the main factions in Somalia in order to gain their co-operation. The Bush administration would also seek a UN- sponsored conference on co-ordinating relief efforts as well as a Security Council resolution authorising the use of 'additional measures' to ensure humanitarian aid reached those in need, the White House said.
Mr Fitzwater said the US was asking the Kenyan government to join in supporting airlifts to northern Kenya for Somali refugees and drought-stricken Kenyans. More than 300,000 Somalis have crossed into Kenya, about 500,000 to Ethiopia and 15,000 to Djibouti. Another 65,000 sailed in rickety boats across the Red Sea to Yemen.
A first UN contingent of 500 Pakistani troops is expected in Mogadishu within days to guard the port and escort relief convoys, after the UN special envoy, Mohamed Sahnoun, signed a deal with General Aideed last week. A UN team completed a nine-day sweep through Somalia on Friday to assess what supplies and logistical support would be needed for a relief drive.