The United Nations Tuesday says at least two people were killed and nine injured in an attack on a truck convoy in southern Somalia. The convoy was delivering food to the area, which has been hard hit by drought.
The fighting occurred in the early hours of Monday morning near the southern town of Baidoa, the temporary home of Somalia's transitional government.
The 72-truck convoy, hired by the World Food Program, was carrying more than 2,500 tons of food to people in the drought-stricken area. U.N. officials say the convoy was in the process of passing through 19 checkpoints controlled by militiamen when gunfire erupted between the militiamen and the convoy's armed escort.
World Food Program spokesman Peter Smerdon tells VOA that shortly before the shooting began convoy personnel attempted to negotiate with the militiamen.
"They [militiamen] were holding up the convoy," he said. "We hear they were demanding money or some of the food. I've seen a report that they were recently driven out of the area and then they had returned and set up these checkpoints because they wanted to tax vehicles, including WFP-contracted trucks. As far as I understand, it wasn't inter-clan militia problem, it was because there was food aid on that road and they wanted money for it to pass or some of the food."
Smerdon says he and his colleagues are saddened by the loss of life and injuries, especially because they were "associated with the delivery of humanitarian aid urgently needed to save lives." One of those injured was a local member of parliament who was trying to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the dispute.
Ever since civil war broke out in 1991, sections of Somalia have been ruled by militias loyal to warlords whose forces frequently battle one another for control over territory.
Militias often set up checkpoints on roads, at airports, and other facilities to extort money from those wishing to pass through.
A transitional federal government was sworn in recently, and is in the process of trying to bring order back to the volatile country.
Despite Monday's attack, Smerdon says the situation in Somalia is improving and that the transitional government, or TFG as it is commonly called, is becoming more effective.
"The convoy got through with its food on board," Smerdon said. "The government in Baidoa turned out in support of the convoy. The TFG [government] did act and assist the convoy."
Somalia is experiencing serious drought and hunger, especially in the south. The United Nations recently launched a multi-million dollar appeal to assist about two million Somalis at risk of starvation.