BARDERA, Somalia -- The U.S. military decision to secur Mogadishu before troops occupy outposts in the hinterlands of starvation has made life more dangerous for people trying to feed dying Somalis.
Marauding gunmen fleeing the capital, where U.S. Marines landed Wednesday, are running amok across the countryside and even in refugee camps in neighboring Kenya, putting the safety of Western relief workers and innocent Somalis at risk.
In Bardera, relief workers are concerned that the next stage of the operation, taking control of Baidoa, will make matters worse for them here.
They say Bardera has been a quieter place than recent news accounts suggest. But they fear that when Marines take Baidoa, a stronghold of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, many of his heavily armed loyalists could be pushed about 100 miles down the road to Bardera, sparking renewed fighting against a well-entrenched rival faction that dominates this southern Somali town.
"I hope they strike both [Baidoa and Bardera] at the same time," said Mats Norlen, speaking of U.S. troops. "All they're doing now is pushing the gunmen in front of them."
Mr. Norlen, a member of Swedrelief who works for UNICEF in Bardera, is getting impatient. He said Friday that U.S. fighter jets had started daily flyovers, "and we say to them, 'Come down here.' "
The flights by F-14 Tomcats from the carrier USS Ranger have been seen in Baidoa as well. The planes carry on their wings tactical advance reconnaissance pods that can photograph areas where Somali gunmen congregate and where they may be stockpiling weapons and stolen loot, U.S. Navy sources said.
The workers in Baidoa are impatient too, saying that help is needed there before the promised seven to 10 days.
In a meeting Friday, six relief agencies expressed displeasure at the delay to Col. Kevin Kennedy, their liaison with the overall commander of coalition forces, according to a Catholic Relief Services official in the capital.
William Bergquist, of the Baltimore-based CRS, said: "Security guards at the NGOs [the private relief agencies] have to stay up all night, and we can't sustain that. It's only a few thugs, but we need the problem to be considered in that light. The situation is critical in Baidoa. Every day we get closer to having someone shot."
Mr. Bergquist said the agencies do not think large forces are necessary to take care of this problem. "Just a couple of gunships -- that should take care of it," he said.
Ian MacLeod, a spokesman for the U.N. relief operation, said yesterday that Marine Gen. Robert Johnston, commander of U.S. forces in Somalia, had promised to speed up activities.
"Johnston is acutely aware of the desperate need to get into the interior regions of Somalia as soon as he has enough support on the ground," Mr. MacLeod said.
Although most relief workers are eager for the military to arrive to stop the widespread theft of food and supplies, some wonder why U.S. troops did not try to secure several towns after they landed in Mogadishu.
The hasty evacuation Friday of the last four foreign relief workers in Gailalassi, 100 miles north of the capital, was necessary because the number of "technicals" -- gun-toting men and boys in vehicles with mounted machine guns -- tripled as a result of Wednesday's landing, the workers said.
An armed assault on the local warehouse emptied the stock of food and medication, leaving 1,000 sick and malnourished Somalis with nothing, one worker said. Even so, the incident prompted local Somalis to urge the foreigners to flee for their lives.
The number of gunmen also has been swelling in Waajid, the last major stop between Baidoa and the Ethiopian border. The town council is said by the lone foreign relief worker there to be waging a bold campaign to persuade them to leave.
Raiding Kenya, too
Meanwhile, thousands of Somali gunmen are spilling across the border into Kenya, looting and robbing with increased intensity.
Cross-border raids have surged as the gangs of Somali gunmen search for havens to avoid allied soldiers, said Panos Moumpzis, of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mission in Nairobi, Kenya.
"We had 3,000 armed men cross over [into Kenya] three days ago," he said Friday. "It's not the first time, but we've not had so many before."
A van of armed young thugs attacked a hospital at the Mandera refugee camp in the remote northeastern corner of Kenya earlier in the week and made off with drugs and food, Mr. Moumpzis said.
It was the third successive night of attack at the camp, one of 16 run by the UNHCR along the 600-mile border. The camps care for more than 450,000 refugees, most of them Somali women and children, he said.
In separate incidents in the last week, armed Somali bandits hijacked four UNHCR vehicles near Mandera and another Kenyan border town and drove them into Somalia, Mr. Moumpzis added.
The spreading activity of the "technicals" was not unexpected, said a Washington-based U.S official.
But the official said the size of the U.S.-led military force -- expected to reach 35,000 over the next several weeks -- eventually would be sufficient to maintain security, even in outlying areas.
Military officials said an operation of this size could be done only in carefully planned stages, mainly because getting so many U.S.-based troops and equipment quickly to this part of the world is difficult. They suggested that limited airlift and sealift capabilities precluded a mass takeover of key towns and villages.
"No question, all the bad boys are on the run," one military official said.
Morgan vs. Aidid
Here in Bardera, the concern is that the next stage will create more danger unless the town is occupied at the same time as Baidoa.
Relief workers say that more than two dozen clans remain aligned with the warlords and with the local "boss of bosses," Mohamed Siad Herso Morgan, son-in-law of the ousted dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre.
The Morgan forces have repulsed incursions by gunmen loyal to General Aidid, who was forced to withdraw from Bardera on Oct. 13 after a major battle.
"One of Morgan's men told us you will be personally safe, you shouldn't fear for your own life," said Mr. Norlen of UNICEF.
He said that two officials of the U.N. military command briefed the relief workers generally about what to expect when U.S. forces arrive.
"We should expect exactly what we see in Mogadishu: disarmament, if need be by force, of the 'technicals' and the deployment of troops to secure the food transport," Mr. Norlen said.
No timetable was mentioned. Nor did the briefers say whether the Baidoa and Bardera landings would occur at the same time.
"I don't think it'll make any difference as far as the death rate [from hunger and disease] is concerned, but for security, yes," Mr. Norlen said. "I'll be able to sleep well at night and work during the day. Of course, in the long run, if we can get food in and keep food here, we can work more effectively."
Still, the delay leaves enough time for General Aidid's men to launch a new offensive. Some workers believe that the bulk of the Aidid forces could opt to head north toward the Ethiopian border.