AS twilight fades into night, a homeless young girl, thin and weak, lies down to sleep on the ground here, under the shelter of a truck destroyed in Somalia's continuing civil war.
Across the street from her, behind a closed gate, leaders of the local clan, whose people are the main victims of Somalia's famine and war, gather around a lantern-lit wooden table to discuss ways to curb armed looting of food relief and to bring peace to their country.
"UN peace forces should come to Baidoa," one clan elder speaks out. "This we ask immediately and urgently."
But the opportunity for such intervention may have come and gone. As United Nations efforts to guard food operations and mediate between clans bogged down further this week in the face of resistance by a key Somali faction and the apparent resignation of the UN's chief diplomat in Somalia, some analysts said the UN may never be able to do the job.
Consequently, Somalis themselves are moving ahead to protect food shipments and bring about an end to the war here.
Local clan leaders have taken up arms against looters from outside clans. They have blacklisted truckers whose food shipments are stolen, a measure that the elders hope will slow driver-looter conspiracies and force truckers to get their own protection.
At the same time, Somali politicians from eight clans are trying to form a coalition against Somali military strongman, Gen. Mohammed Farah Aideed, who this week restated his longstanding opposition to UN troops sent to guard food shipments.
General Aideed is "still the big frog in the pond" and opposes the presence of UN troops because they make looting difficult, says a Western diplomat in Nairobi, Kenya. "Food still remains power." Aideed's resistance
The 500 UN Pakistani armed troops sent to guard food operations in the Mogadishu, the capital, have been blocked since their arrival late last month by Somali forces aligned with Aideed. Additional UN troops were expected soon in northern Somalia.
Frustrated over the UN's inability to force Aideed to accept the UN troops, the UN's peace negotiator for Somalia, Mohammed Sahnoun, offered his resignation Tuesday. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali reportedly had told him to tone down his criticism of UN efforts in Somalia, according to the diplomat in Kenya.
In the short run, more fighting is likely, especially in the port city of Kismayu, targeted by forces opposing Aideed. On Oct. 13, opposition forces, including those led by Gen. Mohamed Siad Hersi Morgan, son-in-law of ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, defeated Aideed's forces in Bardera, a southern town.
Somali politicians opposed to Aideed hope the military and political pressures brought to bear on the rebel leader will lead to some kind of peace agreement.
Aideed's military strength seems greater than the combined forces of the eight clans building the coalition against him, according to some Somali politicians. But Aideed's forces are stretched thin, and he recently has lost support of some clans previously aligned with him, they say.
By themselves, the Somali efforts to curb looting and restore peace are not likely to be enough, according to both Western and Somali analysts.
"Some form of external brokering" is still needed, says David Laitin, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. "I think the UN is probably not capable of the kind of bargaining" needed for peacemaking in the complex world of clan politics, says Professor Laitin, a long-time expert on Somalia. "A US, British, Italian condominium could probably do better than Boutros-Ghali and Sahnoun."
Even if a peace agreement is reached, Laitin predicts Somalia could see "25 years of avenging at the local level" - revenge killings resulting from the civil war among clans.
Laitin says such clans as the Rahanweyn, who are not heavily armed, will likely be left out of future political coalitions between the more-fortified clans. Their minority rights must be protected by some kind of international monitoring, he says.
Abdurahman Mohamed Ali, a major in the Somali Democratic Movement, the Rahanweyn political cause, agrees. "For the last 30 years, we were like a colony," he says. When the army of the long-ruling dictator, Mr. Siad Barre, deposed in January 1991, wanted troops to oppose rebels in the north, "they came here and took people by force." Hiring locals
The Rahanweyn resent the current occupation of their town by the Duduble, a clan related to Aideed's Habar-Gedir. They blame the Duduble for most of the food looting here.
"We can't agree that our food becomes looted from the starved people of our region," a Rahanweyn clan elder says.
The Rahanweyn suggest relief agencies hire local clans as food guards because they will be more careful of their people. Mary Hope Schwoebel, of the Catholic Relief Service (CRS), which has an office here, says local hiring is a good way "to reduce looting and skimming."
But an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is now hiring more local guards in Somalia, cautions that local clans can also loot.