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Helping Somalia

WHAT State Department officials call "the worst humanitarian disaster in the world" - 5,000 persons a day dying of hunger - has been building for months in Somalia on the tip of the Horn of Africa.

A civil war and drought have caused a complete breakdown in Somalia's markets, food system, and civil authority. Bands of teenagers with automatic weapons roam and loot the countryside outside the capitol, Mogadishu - taking crucial water pumps and livestock. Crops haven't been planted. Relief workers say a full third of the 5 million population in central and southern Somalia could die by year's end without more aid. As one middle-class Somali said recently, his only real options are to work in an aid c enter, take a gun and loot, or leave.

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In the "We Are the World" 1980s, the West learned that people die in the Horn of Africa not from drought or natural disaster, but from politics and war. Even with this year's severe drought, starvation in the Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia is concentrated in areas of civil strife.

Delivering aid and saving lives in Somalia requires the West, through the United Nations, to do a political "We are the World" - beginning with serious talks between Mohamed Ali Mahdi and Mohamed Farah Aidid, the two Somali leaders who have been fighting over Mogadishu. One or two meetings isn't enough. Both sides must agree to allow food and aid workers protected by armed UN peacekeepers into the country. Without some process, no civil authority can be established - probably leaving the better-supplied General Aidid as a post-genocidal dictator.

Africa watchers, and indeed UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, are distressed that Yugoslavia, rather than Somalia, has gripped the West's attention. This isn't surprising. The Horn has had famines for 20 years. The Balkan crisis is recent, and acute.

Yet both make new-world-order demands to overcome tribalism with civil authority. Aidid and Mr. Mahdi are from warring factions of the same Hawiye clan. Aidid is a Haber Gidir. Mahti is an Abgal, a subclan of Hawiye's. The two drove out former dictator Mohammed Siad Barre; their subsequent quarreling led to the current civil war. Minority rights of Abgals must be addressed.

Avoiding millions of deaths will require more of George Bush. He had wavered on 500 peacekeepers to protect aid workers, saying Congress would balk. Yet Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, a fellow Republican and a recent visitor to Somalia, says 500 are needed - and would push for them. The White House now agrees.

Flooding Somalia with food would ease tensions. If the West fails, it must fail trying.

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