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War sinks its teeth ever deeper into Somalia: The world is still averting its gaze from its most savage conflict, writes Richard Dowden

THE WARNINGS of catastrophe went unheeded. The rest of the world took no interest. Somalia tore itself to pieces. This woman and child outside a makeshift hospital at Merca, on the coast, are among the luckier people who have made it to a place where there is food, water and medical care.

Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands have died either directly or indirectly from civil war in Somalia in the past two years. It is the worst human catastrophe in the world, worse than Yugoslavia. Even now, five months after a signed ceasefire, Digfer Hospital in Mogadishu is receiving 30 or 40 people a day suffering from bullet wounds.

Andrew Natsios of the United States Agency for International Development estimates 2,000 people are dying each day in and around the capital city, Mogadishu. The city has become one huge feeding centre but, according to aid workers, the food is not reaching the groups in most need because of banditry, looting and corruption.

'The idea was to get as much food into the city as possible so that the price would fall and the aid agencies could then target the vulnerable groups,' David Shearer of Save the Children Fund in Mogadishu said. 'But there is so much extortion . . . bribery and theft that it is impossible. The food is not reaching the people who need it.'

There were hopes that other parts of the country might survive war and drought better than the capital, but these have recently been shattered. In Baidoa, 150 miles from Mogadishu, the Red Cross estimates that 7,000 out of the town's 40,000 people have died so far this year from starvation. Peasant farmers were driven from their fields.

Somalia is also suffering from severe drought, which led to famine, but the war has prevented the distribution of food aid. One in six Somalis are now displaced, either in gruesome refugee camps in Kenya or squatting in the barren Somali countryside searching for something to eat. The Red Cross estimates that 2 million out of the total population of about 8 million are facing starvation and that many of those are in inaccessible places.

Mogadishu is a battleground of two armies, one led by General Mohammed Farah Aideed, who fought a guerrilla war to overthrow the old dictator Siad Barre, and the other by Ali Mahdi Mohamed, who was declared interim president after Mr Barre fled in January last year. The struggle is partly between these two men and partly between their sub-clans. Both are members of the Hawiye clan but General Aideed is from the Habar Gadir sub-clan and Ali Mahdi is Abgal.

The traditional systems of settling inter-clan disputes have all failed. The two armies are ill-disciplined and the city, like most of southern Somalia, is at the mercy of gangs of gunmen who take whatever they want and kill whoever stands in their way. The feeding centres run by the Red Cross - some 400 of them throughout the country - and those run by other aid agencies provide the only sanctuaries in the country.

On Thursday, 18 months after central authority collapsed, the United Nations arrived in the form of 47 unarmed military observers who are to monitor a ceasefire signed five months ago. The Hercules transport plane that finally brought in the UN troops was delayed by bureacratic bungling in Kenya and then got stuck in the soft sand at the end of the runway. The troops are supposed to deploy to each side of the city but no one, not even the Red Cross, travels in Somalia without armed protection. The possibility of bringing UN peace monitors into Mogadishu was first mooted at the beginning of the year and was agreed after lengthy negotiations. Their deployment was postponed for two weeks after Ali Mahdi allegedly used a plane bearing the UN emblem to fly ammunition and money to Mogadishu from Nairobi. It appeared that a Russian Antonov-32, chartered for UN relief flights to Mogadishu, had been used to fly tons of Somali banknotes printed in Britain to Ali Mahdi for paying his troops. General Aideed accused the UN of complicity but dropped his objections after the UN denied involvement and Ali Mahdi agreed to stop disbursing the money.

The Red Cross, one of the few aid agencies to keep its staff in Mogadishu throughout the war, is spending more than a quarter of its total dollars 500m (pounds 260m) aid budget on Somalia this year. It is feeding about 500,000 people each day throughout the country. Four of its staff members have been killed and several others injured. The British government this week gave pounds 2.5m to the Red Cross appeal for medical supplies, plastic sheeting and tents.

More than 250 Somali refugees who reached the Kenyan port of Mombasa in a Jamaican-registered cargo ship on Friday were denied permission to disembark yesterday. The provincial commissioner was reported to have said the nearby refugee camp that houses 25,618 of the nearly 156,000 Somali refugees in Kenya was too congested.

(Photograph omitted)