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The U.S. military airlift of food to starving people in Somalia, begun a month ago with great fanfare, is proving disappointing to some international aid officials.

They have accused the Americans of being overcautious about flying to unstable areas, unnecessarily slowing the delivery of vital food, medicine and other supplies.Some members of Congress also have called for a more active U.S. military role in Somalia, where more than 100,000 people already have died from war and starvation.

Two million more are critically at risk, and aid officials say up to 500,000 people could die by Christmas unless food and medical aid gets to them first.

Many private aid workers are angry and frustrated with the pace of the relief effort, which has been bedeviled by marauding local gunmen and transportation delays. Exhausted by the sight of children, mothers and the elderly dying every day, they have lashed out in many directions, including at each other - and recently at the U.S. airlift.

Such criticism, however, draws a sharp response from Washington.

"This airlift has saved lives and has moved a lot of food that would otherwise have not been moved," James Kunder, the head of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, said Thursday in Wash-ington.

"It's difficult enough to work in these utterly chaotic conditions. For people who are supposed to be relief professionals to take potshots doesn't save any Somali lives and just makes this operation all the more difficult."

The real villains in Somalia, he said, are "the thugs on the ground" who threaten relief shipments.