U.S. and French troops struck out from Baidoa Thursday, escorting tons of relief food to four nearby villages where many inhabitants appeared too weak to greet them.
Rising tension was reported elsewhere in Somalia, and aid workers urged the troops to secure even more of the chaotic Horn of Africa country.In Baidoa, eight U.S. military vehicles, including Humvees and armored personnel carriers, and three French armored vehicles escorted CARE trucks carrying enough to feed about 7,500 people for a month.
Dozens of vehicles carrying relief agency workers and journalists jockeyed for space along the narrow, potholed path that passes for a road, and photographers sat atop the wheat sacks piled in the backs of CARE's 10 trucks.
The mercy mission to the villages, all within 30 miles of Baidoa, stopped first at Bonkey and Busley, which received their first deliveries in two weeks.
The last time CARE attempted a convoy to Bonkey, on Dec. 3, its trucks were attacked, and five bandits were shot to death in a gun battle with CARE's Somali guards. The 460 sacks of food destined for the starving were lost.
CARE spokesman James Fen-nell said he expected no violence Thursday.
"They've gone out with a fairly well-armed group," he said. "If there are any bandits out there, they're keeping their heads down."
Baidoa's residents, who gave the Americans and French a tumultuous welcome when they arrived in the central Somali town Wednesday, stood along the road out of town and waved as the convoy passed. Some troops tossed chocolate candy to the children.
The reception at the receiving villages was low-key. Villagers, dressed mostly in rags, stood silently as troops and journalists swarmed amid their mud huts. One man wandered aimlessly, holding up a swollen index finger oozing with infection in the apparent hope someone would tend to it.
In Busley, a thin woman wrapped in a bright shawl squatted outside her hut while a couple of journalists plied her with questions. Finally the woman, who would not give her name, told them: "I'm too hungry. I don't feel like doing interviews."
Another Busley woman, Fatuma Mabile, said she was pleased to get the relief food. "If we didn't get this food, I would go to sleep without eating," she said.
Mabile, 30, looked more like 60 and had one blind eye.
"I've worked with refugees before, but this is a whole lot worse than I expected," said Marine Staff Sgt. Marwan Binni of Oceanside, Calif., before the convoy left the airport. "It seems like Africa is condemned."
Civil war has combined with famine and disease to kill more than 350,000 Somalis since President Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted nearly two years ago. An estimated 2 million more are still at risk of starvation.
Government has disintegrated, and chaos reigned in the streets until last week, when the foreign troops arrived to help restore order and secure food shipments to the hungry.
But there were more signs Thursday of rampant lawlessness where the troops have yet to tread.
Violence raged in the central town of Bardera, 60 miles south of Baidoa. On Monday night, a gang of looters opened fire at a feeding center run by the International Committee of the Red Cross for the severely malnourished. Five to eight people were wounded, said Red Cross spokeswoman Nina Win-quist.
She said one person died, believed to have been one of the bandits.
On Wednesday, a prominent Muslim leader in Bardera was shot to death, along with his 10-year-old niece, Winquist said. The man was identified only as Sheik Mursal.
CARE spokeswoman Angela Mac-Kay in Mogadishu said the agency had reports that the dominant militia in the southern port of Kismayo, 300 miles south of the capital, was trying to kill its opponents before foreign forces move in.
Ian MacLeod, a U.N. spokesman, also said the security situation in Kismayo was deteriorating. The port has been closed since Oct. 2 because of clan warfare.
MacLeod said tensions also are rising in north Mogadishu.
U.S. plans call for troops to reach Kismayo and Bardera in the last stages of Operation Restore Hope after first moving north from Baidoa.