AS the balance of 500 armed United Nations troops arrive here to guard relief supplies in this capital city, the effort to distribute food to starving Somalis is meeting with some successes and some setbacks.
In Mogadishu, several hundred energetic, healthy-looking children talk loudly, jumping and waving at foreign visitors to a feeding center run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"Hundreds and hundreds [of children] are doing well," says Saida Adan, director of the center. "When the center opened a few months ago, they were so hungry and needed help to stand up. Now they are running."
But elsewhere, the international effort to get food to starving Somalis continues to be affected by armed looters who, anticipating the arrival of the UN troops in Mogadishu, have been moving upcountry.
"They've decided it's going to be too hard to loot in Mogadishu," says a UN official here.
Relief agencies were forced to suspend food airlifts to the hard-hit central town of Baidoa Sept. 22 and scale back airlifts to two others. Aid workers in another town, Belet Uen, remained in safe quarters due to threats from armed Somalis.
The UN announced Sept. 22 it would hold a conference in Geneva in early October to discuss the airlift and security in Somalia.
Meanwhile, the death rate from starvation and related diseases is actually growing in such towns as Baidoa, where relief officials estimate several thousand people perish each month.
More and more Somalis are abandoning their meager food sources in villages and trying to reach food-distribution points. Many die during the journey. Many more die upon arrival.
"I saw a three-year-old child near death," says Rob Buchanan, regional director of Oxfam- America, who recently visited Baidoa. "His mother had died the day before. Other children also looked very thin."
In Wajid, in central Somalia, "people are eating animal skins and dying," says Bouchan Hadj-Chikh, an Algerian working here for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
Patrick Vial, general coordinator for the French chapter of Doctors Without Borders, says there are 10,000 to 12,000 displaced Somalis in Wajid "in bad condition. And more are coming every day." He says they get only one meal a day from the relief food flown there.
"There's not enough food going in" to such the hard-hit central towns, says Tom Lecato, WFP's temporary coordinator for Somalia.
He says enough food has been promised by donors to meet the needs through January. But the problem remains one of getting it safely to the people.
"We're in a critical turning point," says David Bassiouni, UN relief coordinator for Somalia. "The key now is timing." UN and other relief officials say they must distribute the incoming food relief quickly to avoid creating vulnerable stockpiles.
The continuing looting of relief supplies has prompted fresh appraisals of options on how to curb it, ranging from closer cooperation with traditional leaders to a national Somali police force.
Stephen Tomlin, director in Somalia for International Medical Corps (IMC), suggests one way to improve the security of food deliveries to rural areas would be for relief officials to work more closelywith Somali elders.
In some places, "there is no respect for the elders in the country, in terms of those wielding the guns," Tomlin says. But in other areas elders still have influence.
In the town of Hoddur, Mr. Hadj-Chikh of the WFP saw local elder Mohammed Noor Shodoq "talking to 100 gunmen, and they were listening to him." Mr. Shodoq helped negotiate agreement among the local armed groups to protect relief food, Hadj-Chikh says. "It's an example others should take."
One of the two Somali warlords, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, favors a national police force rather than increased foreign intervention.
"With rehabilitation of the Somali police force, we can take care of our security," says Abdulkadir Sheik Mao, a Somali attorney and member of the central committee of the United Somali Congress, whose two divided factions control the capital.
General Aideed opposes both the 2,100 United States Marines stationed off the Somali shore and the additional 3,000 armed troops the UN Security Council has approved sending to Somalia.
US officials say the Marines do not intend to come ashore, but are there to help with communications and any rescue of downed planes at sea.
Experts on Somali clan politics say Aideed's opposition to these forces may reflect the likelihood that such troops would diminish opportunities for looting by armed clans aligned with him.
Allowing the looting to continue, they say, may be one of the few ways Aideed, or his rival, Mohamed Ali Mahdi, can keep the loyalty of his supporters.