THIS small, riverside town of dusty streets, donkey carts, and -
once again - big guns is militarily important in Somalia.
Like a tempting plum, Belet Uen sits on the main road linking central and northern Somalia to the Indian Ocean-side capital, Mogadishu. Whoever controls the town can control the flow of arms into Mogadishu from militia bases in the interior.
In late July, the man who wants to force his way into becoming Somalia's next president, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, plucked this plum from both the dominant rival ethnic group, the Hawadley, and 169 United Nations soldiers from Zimbabwe.
People here, as in any conquered town, are afraid to speak in favor or against the new masters - General Aideed's Somali National Alliance (SNA). They also fear speaking out against the old masters, the Hawadley - an ethnic group accused of lording it over residents - because the Hawadley may regain power.
``The main problem is selfishness'' on the part of both the Hawadley and Aideed, says one cautious resident.
SNA officials see the UN presence in Somalia as useless, and justify their presence here as one of liberating the local people.
But a resident sees the SNA presence differently: ``They have captured the city.''
The SNA do not hide their real ambition. ``We hope soon to have a [national] government,'' says Mohamed Ahmed Muhamood, a senior SNA official here.
Belet Uen is the latest of several towns seized in recent months by Aideed in an ambitious attempt to claim control over enough territory to enable him to announce a new national government.
The Hawadley and Aideed's Habar-Gedir are both subclans of the Hawiye clan, one of the main clans or ethnic groups in Somalia. The two groups, former allies, clashed earlier this year in southern Somalia and then in Mogadishu.
In apparent retaliation for Hawadley advances in those places, the Habar-Gedir seized several towns in this area, including Belet Uen.
Thousands of Hawadley have fled to the bush, where they ``live a dog's life on mountain tops and along the [Scebeli] River,'' according to another local resident. ``They need help,'' he adds. Some 20 children among those who fled have died, he says.
``Starvation has started,'' another resident says.
``We are not really happy with what happened,'' says another regarding the plight of the Hawadley who have fled.
Belet Uen straddles the Scebeli River. The Hawadley side of town is nearly deserted; the other side is bustling with open markets and roadside stalls and shops.
A vehicle with its roof cut off to make room for a mounted anti-aircraft gun is parked outside a two-story government building the SNA has taken over. Heavily armed young men with machine guns stand at the corners.
Inside, Mr. Muhamood and Abdi Rizak Sheikh Ali Anooc, a SNA security official, offer a briefing that to outsiders sounds like Orwellian doublespeak: The SNA seized Belet Uen after a large massacre of residents by the Hawadley, they say. But independent analysts have heard of no such massacre.
Capture of the Zimbabwean soldiers, one of whom was killed, was done to ``save their lives,'' they claim. Yet diplomats say the UN soldiers were unwilling to fight against a large show of SNA arms.
The SNA controls Baidoa, another strategic town, they add. But during a recent stopover by this reporter in Baidoa, a UN soldier and local resident said this was not true.