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Stop Somalia's Slide

SOMALIA appears to be slipping further into chaos and violence. Sniping at aircraft bringing food interrupted relief efforts last week, including American flights to the distribution center of Baidoa. Fighting broke out between the forces of a major clan chieftain and soldiers loyal to the son-in-law of former ruler Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, shutting down relief efforts in another key town, Bardera.

Most troubling, perhaps, the United Nation's top diplomat in Somalia, Algerian Mohammed Sahnoun, resigned in despair - not so much over the warring Somalis as over the limited mandate that kept him from making quick use of UN peacekeeping troops around the capital, Mogadishu, and in other parts of the country. A 500-man UN contingent is in Mogadishu, but it has yet to be deployed because of disagreements with one of the two factions controlling the city.

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Mr. Sahnoun's resignation was a blow both to aid workers and to Somalis, who viewed him as approachable and committed to solving their country's problems.

Such commitment is a precious commodity in Somalia. Will the feuding of clan leaders be allowed to thwart relief efforts that hold the only hope of saving thousands of desperate, innocent people? Interruptions in the flow of aid can quickly raise the daily death tolls from hunger. In Bardera, for instance, 307 people died of starvation one day last week. Before the new fighting, relief workers had crossed the town off their "critical list."

Such reversals can be eliminated only by greatly increasing the aid effort, not shrinking it in the face of sniping. Otherwise food will remain a scarce resource and a focus of banditry. And along with increased shipment of food and other supplies must come greater numbers of international peacekeepers to ward off looters. UN action in this regard has been agonizingly slow, as Sahnoun lamented.

Questions of invaded sovereignty have little relevance in Somalia, where organized government has largely dissolved. Local leaders must be consulted; every effort should be made to bring the representatives of competing clans into negotiations that might lead toward national cohesiveness - a process that Sahnoun has begun. But the international relief campaign, including adequate armed protection for aid workers and supplies, can't be put on hold until each clan and subclan is accommodated.

The urgent short-term need in Somalia is a steady flow of food. The long-term need is international help in rebuilding a shattered country. Roads, water systems, health-care facilities - all are in a terrible state.

Sahnoun's resignation issues a warning that neither need is being adequately met by current UN efforts. The permanent Security Council members, who regretted the envoy's departure, should see to it that his criticisms of bureaucratic inertia are addressed. The rescue of Somalia demands fresh commitment.

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