MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — THE convoy assembles in the predawn haze on Mogadishu's waterfront. Armed guards and a truck with a four-barreled antiaircraft gun on the back have taken positions to protect the largest shipment of food to leave the city in almost a year.Fifty other trucks carry rice, beans, and seed for the hungry. Three small Toyotas, "protected" with flags and stickers of the International Committee of the Red Cross, give the convoy the legitimacy it needs to leave the capital. The sooner the long convoy is away from the ambush-prone capital, the better, say ICRC workers. Only in Somalia, Lebanon, and Afghanistan are conditions so bad the ICRC must travel with armed escorts. "Trucks with food here are like trucks full of money," says ICRC official Stefan Hagelueken. After 10 months of fighting, Somalia's need for food is great. An ICRC assessment of rural areas found 80 percent of the children between one and five years of age were malnourished, 40 percent of those severely. As the convoy heads for Giohar, 130 miles north, most of the 80 security men - hired from Mogadishu's governor - threaten not to allow food to leave the compound unless they are paid seven times the agreed amount. Negotiations take all day. In the end, the ICRC agrees to triple their pay. "They sent us looters, not security," says a Red Cross worker, who says such obstacles keep many other relief agencies away. "If I told you how many times I've been offered money, threatened, or shot at, you'd think I was crazy to do this job," says Muhammad Warre, the Somali ICRC troubleshooter who organized the convoy. He talks to the security men, then to the drivers who want more money for the one-day delay. In the bush, the trucks get to their villages without trouble. The orange-bearded chief of Buraane, Muhammad Osman Siyad, promises to give the food to the most vulnerable: "The worst affected are those with no gas to harvest fields. In past months they have been eating grass. People are not starving to death, but there is much hunger." But in Qajafey men with guns open fire while a truck unloads. The food is lost and is referred to as "otherwise distributed." In Somalia, the trail of lost and stolen food is long. Of the 12,500 tons of food distributed by the ICRC in Somalia since March, 1,000 tons were captured in the southern town of Kismayo during a major military offensive. In addition, relief food has appeared in Mogadishu markets with disconcerting regularity. The ICRC office in Nairobi claims "at least 50 percent" of the relief food sent to Somalia gets to the right people, but delegates on the scene say it is only 30 percent or 40 percent. The rest is "acquired," sold, and used as a currency far stronger than the rapidly falling shilling. Gregoire Tavernier, the ICRC deputy for Somalia, says two or three months ago "we had some surprises. Either the security or other people took their share, or the camp was nonexistent." Most of the blatant stealing has been stopped, but the real problem - that the ICRC has been practically alone in Somalia for the past five months - remains. The United Nations arrived in Mogadishu early in September. Three of their Somali guards were killed within days in what were considered political attacks because the UN was seen as being too close to President Ali Mahdi Mohamed. "We were advised by the president not to go back," says James Jonah, the undersecretary general of the UN for the Horn of Africa. So, despite a recent UN appeal which put the number at risk in Somalia at 4.5 million, there is no UN presence here.