NAIROBI, Kenya -- United Nations officials said yesterday that they reached a "momentous" agreement with a key Somali warlord allowing the deployment of up to 500 armed foreign troops to protect relief shipments coming into the port of Mogadishu.
Plagued by violence and looting, the port is a troublesome bottleneck for emergency food and medical supplies for Somalia's more than 6 million people, as many as 4.5 million of whom face famine after years of civil war and drought.
The agreement with Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, a rebel commander who exerts control over the portion of Mogadishu that includes the port, the international airport and many storage depots, was announced here by Mohammed Sahnoun, special representative for Somalia of U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
"Certainly this very important development will help resolve the security questions which we were facing in Mogadishu and will certainly bring, in a speedy way, the food to the needy, " Mr. Sahnoun said in a news conference.
The deployment of troops still requires final approval of the U.N. Security Council, but the council has approved it in principle in two previous resolutions this year. Depending on council action and logistical considerations, the first troops could arrive in two or three weeks.
Mr. Sahnoun said that he hopes the agreement would encourage Western countries to step up their contributions to Somalia, which so far this year have fallen far short of the desperate country's needs.
Since January, less than 90,000 tons of relief food has reached the country, which Mr. Sahnoun called "only 25 percent of the minimum required -- and I stress the word minimum." U.N. and relief agency estimates place the country's needs at about 50,000 tons a month.
The crisis in provincial areas has increased in recent weeks, he said, as people emerge from the bush on hearing rumors of food shipments and gather in makeshift feeding centers. In the town of Bardera, about 160 miles west of Mogadishu, 200 people a day have come since last week, when the U.N. Children's Fund landed its first relief flight there in months.
"People walk three or four weeks to reach the place," Mr. Sahnoun said in an appeal for an emergency airlift of food and medical supplies.
U.N. officials and relief workers in Mogadishu have long felt that the intervention of an international armed force was the only way to stem the security crisis in the city, an anarchic former capital teeming with guns and artillery. But many said the 500 troops would be insufficient, especially if General Aideed chose to oppose them with force.
But Mr. Sahnoun said that he thought 500 would be enough for Mogadishu "if we don't have to deal with a hostile environment." Deployment of troops elsewhere would require further negotiations with other commanders controlling Somali territory.
General Aideed had opposed international intervention in Somalia on grounds that an armed force would violate Somali sovereignty. But because the country has been ungoverned and virtually ungovernable since the January 1991 ouster of long-time strongman Mohamed Siad Barre, most observers argue that General Aideed is more concerned that he would be among the big losers of authority if a cohesive foreign force arrived in Mogadishu.
Even General Aideed's agreement to admit a relatively small U.N. force carries unknown weight, as many of the tens of thousands of armed men in the city owe him minimal allegiance.
Mr. Sahnoun acknowledged that General Aideed, like most other Somali commanders, "has problems with his troops. No one can claim he has total control."