A World Food Program handout of corn rations to Somalis trying to survive a famine turned deadly Friday after government troops opened fire, killing at least seven, witnesses said.
Residents of Mogadishu's largest famine refugee camp accused government soldiers of starting the chaos by trying to steal some of the 290 tons of dry rations that aid workers were trying to distribute there. Then refugees joined in the scramble, prompting soldiers to open fire, the witnesses said.
"They fired on us as if we were their enemy," said refugee Abidyo Geddi. "When people started to take the food then the gunfire started and everyone was being shot. We cannot stay here much longer. We don't get much food and the rare food they bring causes death and torture."
The chaos underscores the dangers and challenges of getting help to a nation that has been essentially ungoverned for two decades and now has a severe famine sweeping through it. There are 9,000 African Union soldiers in the capital, but their main mission is to fight al-Qaida linked Islamists, not safeguard humanitarian aid.
Aid workers are puzzling over how to help the starving without helping gunmen who either prey on the refugees, compete for security contracts to guard the food, or steal it and take a share of the profits when it's sold at market.
The situation echoes the 1992 famine that prompted deployment of a U.S.-led multinational force to safeguard the delivery of food to Somalia's starving. That international intervention collapsed in 1993 after two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and 18 servicemen were killed in one single battle in Mogadishu.
Thousands of Somalis have flooded into Mogadishu from the drought-stricken south. Many have walked for hundreds of miles and buried family members along the way. The drought and famine in Somalia have killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 in the last 90 days in southern Somalia alone, according to U.S. estimates.
Somalia Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali visited the camp after the violence and said he was "deeply sorry." Ali said an investigation would be opened and promised harsh punishment for anyone found guilty.
The already mostly lawless capital has been made even more chaotic with the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing drought in the south, the famine's epicenter.
More than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa are in need of immediate food aid. The U.N. says 640,000 children are acutely malnourished in Somalia, where the U.N. has declared five famine zones, including the camps in Mogadishu for displaced families.