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US starts aid flights after Kenya row ends

A UNITED STATES cargo plane carrying more than 10 tons of food swept into Wajir in northern Kenya yesterday, beginning a big military airlift to relieve famine in the Horn of Africa. Porters pulled 195 sacks of split peas from the C-130 Hercules planes as 'Operation Provide Relief' delivered its first food for Kenya and Somalia.

The plane landed to little ceremony, its flight delayed from early morning by wrangling between Kenya and the US. It seemed yesterday that the humanitarian impulse of the Pentagon was not matched by an understanding of the sensitivities of the Kenyan government and military. Nairobi accused the US team of not seeking proper clearance to use Mombasa's Moi International Airport, from which the US flew the food to Wajir, and into Somalia.

'What has transpired,' said David Andere, Kenya's information spokesman, 'is an overwhelming congestion of Moi airport by these giant aircraft.' But what really upset Kenya was a last- minute request to bring an unspecified number of combat troops and weapons into the country, and a plan to use US troops to distribute food within Kenya. Unnamed sources were quoted in the Kenyan press as accusing the US of the 'height of arrogance' in sending its military to carry out an operation in another country without invitation. It was pointed out that the US had only recently responded to the situation in Somalia, while Kenya had fed hundreds of thousands of Somalis since the beginning of the year.

More unnamed sources complained that the American military appeared to have taken over Kenyan airspace 'from Mombasa to the North Eastern Province'. The Kenyan military clearly saw the US as contriving to sidestep any involvement on its part in the operation, and felt put out that it was not even taking part in authenticating the contents of consignments when they arrived in Mombasa or Wajir.

The venue of yesterday's press conference given by Brigadier General Frank Libutti, commander of the Operation Provide Relief task force, the Kenyan Foreign Minister, Wilson Ndolo- Ayah, and the US Ambassador, Smith Hempstone, was changed at the last minute from the American Cultural Centre to Kenya's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation.

Mr Ndolo-Ayah announced that 'some details not adequately worked out in advance' had now been worked out. The first US relief flight was to fly from Mombasa to Wajir during the course of yesterday after President Moi had given his permission. Mr Hempstone outlined the distribution of responsibilities. The charity Care would deliver a consignment of European Community food to the airport, Gen Libutti would get it to Wajir and Care would take over its distribution.

It was announced that Kenya, the US and interested relief agencies had agreed to set up a joint committee to co-ordinate all food deliveries. However, Gen Libutti identified two broad strands to his operation - the airlift from Mombasa to Northern Kenya and that from Mombasa into Somalia. The committee would not concern itself primarily with the operation within Kenya, deciding who would distribute food and to which points. By implication, the US would have a freer hand in the operation into Somalia. Gen Libutti stressed his determination to work with both agencies already on the ground, referring to them as the 'real heroes'.

Two planes were involved in yesterday's operation, he said, one bringing food and the other what he called 'support equipment'. His team had brought along standard weapons to support a normal military operation. He gave a reassurance that it was not his intention to 'flex military muscles' but that as commander of the force he had to look at all aspects of the sitation. His primary concern in Kenya was not security but moving food, although his focus would change in Somalia, which 'appeared to be unstable'.

The Americans yesterday denied speculation that the Wajir airstrip would be used as a stepping stone for the operation into Somalia itself. The greater military protection that will be required for food brought into Somalia is expected to be provided from Mombasa and flown direct to Somalia once permission is granted by Nairobi for the transport of personnel and weapons across Kenya airspace. Mr Hempstone said, however, that it had never made sense in his mind to send C130 transport planes into Wajir when they had 'long enough legs' to get into Somalia itself.

Gen Libutti said the question of distribution was 'outside my foxhole - beyond the scope of my mission'. He was not in the business of distributing food to small villages and towns, but to designate its sites from Mombasa. He refused to be drawn on what security would be provided for this level of distribution. His task force had a few hundred members in Kenya at the moment, he said, and in response to earlier rumours he asserted there were 'no Green Berets on board at this time'.

David Shearer, the field director of Save the Children's Somalia programme, said on his return to Nairobi from Mogadishu this week, that the catastrophe in Somalia was 'beyond our worst fears'. Information was starting to come through from previously inaccessible areas and conditions in these areas were even worse than had been anticipated.

Mr Shearer said that anxieties about security in Somalia should not deter donors from sending food. Even looted food eventually found its way on to the market, he said, and food prices in Mogadishu had started to fall.

(Photograph omitted)