MOGADISHU, Somalia - Somali government troops opened fire Friday on hungry civilians, killing at least seven people, as both groups made a grab for food at a U.N. distribution site in the capital of this famine-stricken country, witnesses said.
Witnesses accused government soldiers of starting the chaos by trying to steal some of the 290 tons of dry rations as the aid workers tried to hand them out in the biggest camp in Mogadishu for famine refugees. Then refugees joined in the scramble, prompting some soldiers to open fire, the witnesses said.
"It was carnage. They ruthlessly shot everyone," said Abdi Awale Nor, who has been living at the camp. "Even dead bodies were left on the ground and other wounded bled to death."
David Orr, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said the food distribution started smoothly at around 6 a.m. but degenerated a couple hours later.
"We got reports of trouble, looting. The trucks were overwhelmed by a mob of people. There were reports of some shots fired," said Orr, who said he could not confirm any death tolls. He said he didn't know specifically what type of food was being handed out by the WFP, a U.N. agency.
Another refugee, Muse Sheik Ali, said soldiers first tried to steal some of the food aid, and that other refugees began to take the food.
"Then soldiers opened fire at them, and seven people, including elderly people, were killed on the spot. Then soldiers took the food and people fled from the camp," he said.
Thousands of Somali's have flooded into Mogadishu from the drought-stricken south, walking much or all the way and seeing weakened loved ones perish from starvation or complications from malnutrition. 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. International groups face huge challenges in distributing food inside Somalia. The worst-hit part of the country is a no-go area for most aid groups because it is controlled by al-Qaida-linked insurgents, who deny there is a famine and who have allowed only the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter.
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 refugee camps of Mogadishu.
Witnesses said two World Food Program trucks were delivering aid when the chaos broke out. WFP often tries to do what it calls "wet feedings," in Somalia - giving out already made food like porridge - to limit the chances that it will be looted. But in this case it was dry rations, Orr said.
Somali soldiers control just part of the capital and are poorly trained.
"They fired on us as if we were their enemy," said famine 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."
Private militias - most of them politically connected - are competing to guard or steal food. At least four competing militias have the run of government-controlled areas of Mogadishu.
The gunmen roar around in pickup trucks and wage battle over the wages they hope to be paid to either guard the aid or for the cash it will bring when it is stolen and sold. The insecurity amid famine echoes the situation in 1992 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 the crashes and subsequent rescue attempt in the streets of Mogadishu.