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U.N. Halts Food Aid In Somali Capital

Dozens of heavily armed attackers stormed into a United Nations compound Wednesday and spirited away the official overseeing emergency food aid for Somalia's war-ruined capital, prompting the agency to suspend food distributions meant to help tens of thousands.

The World Food Program called for the immediate release of Idris Osman, a Somali in charge of the agency's efforts to help feed people in Mogadishu, a city in shambles after more than a decade and a half of chaos and war. WFP said in a statement that between 50 and 60 Somali government security forces, some in uniform, entered the compound and seized Osman, who was being held in a cell near the presidential palace. No shots were fired, WFP said. The agency had no further comment.

Interior Minister Mohamed Mohamoud Guled denied that government officers carried out any operation at the U.N. compound. But he added that the World Food Program had recently distributed food aid without consulting the government, which has in recent months blocked distributions to areas perceived to be against the government.

Citing staff safety, the World Food Program said it was suspending distribution for a feeding program using government-approved mosques, a program aimed at easing the plight of 75,600 people in Mogadishu. The program began Monday.

"In the light of Mr. Osman's detention and in view of WFP's duty to safeguard its staff, WFP is forced immediately to suspend these distributions and the loading of WFP food from our warehouses in the Somali capital," it said in a statement.

The incident followed some of the heaviest fighting in weeks in the capital. Overnight, at least eight civilians and one policeman died during an hours-long battle between Islamic insurgents and policemen, said residents and the police on Wednesday.

The civilians killed during the late Tuesday battle died when mortars crashed into their houses during fighting that began when 100 insurgents blasted a police station in the south of Mogadishu with heavy machine-guns and rocket propelled grenades, residents said.

"Buildings shuddered and weapons exchanged by the two sides illuminated the sky of the city," said Abdullahi Hussein Mohamud, who also said some mortars landed near his home that is some distance away from where the battle took place.

Abdi Haji Nur, a businessman, said that the insurgents captured the station, forcing about 30 policemen based there to flee.

Gen. Yusuf Osman Hussein, director of police operations in Mogadishu, denied the insurgents seized the station, saying policemen repelled "elements of peace-haters" and lost one of their colleagues during the fighting.

Mogadishu has been plagued by fighting since government troops and their Ethiopian allies chased out the Council of Islamic Courts in December. For six months, the Islamic group controlled much of southern Somalia and remnants have vowed to fight an Iraq-style insurgency. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the fighting this year so far.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, when rival warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other.

In Somalia, as in many other war-struck African nations, food aid and other humanitarian efforts have taken on political significance. During Mogadishu chaos in the 1990s, clan militias kept food from hungry residents, seeking to control the populations or feed their own fighters.

In Sudan, according to a WFP statement Wednesday, three truck drivers working for the agency were killed in the past few days while delivering food aid to Darfur, where fighting broke out in 2003 between ethnic African rebels and Sudan's Arab-dominated central government.

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, two West African nations that suffered under long civil wars, food aid was often captured by rebel or government-militia forces. In Liberia, rebel fighters would raid UN-run refugee camps and steal sacks of grain, abducting camp residents to use as porters for their booty.

Aid officials in those countries said it was inevitable that some food aid would end up in the hands of combatants, but said that should never be a reason to stop efforts to feed hungry civilians.

In many of Africa's poorest countries, food aid is the main source of nutrition for many citizens.