WASHINGTON -- Moving to alleviate "mass death by starvation" in Somalia, the White House said yesterday that the Pentagon would begin emergency airlifts of food as soon as possible.
In addition, the United States intends to seek approval for a United Nations Security Council resolution "that would authorize the use of additional measures to ensure that humanitarian relief can be delivered," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
Starvation brought on by drought and civil war in the East African na
tion has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis, and aid workers say the toll could increase by 1.5 million people within weeks.
"Because armed bands are stealing and hoarding food, as well as attacking international relief workers, the primary challenge that the international community faces is the delivery of relief supplies," Mr. Fitzwater said.
The airlift is expected to carry at least 145,000 tons of food to four airports, mostly in southern and central regions, in an effort to bypass the warring bands in the vicinity of the nation's capital, Mogadishu.
The cost of the airlift was not available, a White House spokesman said. He said that the United States had already donated $77 million in food, but he was unable to say what this amounted to in tonnage or how many people would be aided by the new deliveries.
Officials were also unable to say how many flights would be involved, or how many military crews would take part. They said such details would be worked out by the Pentagon over the weekend.
Pentagon officials said a team of military specialists would be dispatched immediately to Somalia to survey the security and the physical adequacy of airfields in the country's hinterlands. Several of them will require improvements to accommodate U.S. cargo planes. But a Defense Department official said the Pentagon was prepared to send air controllers, cargo handlers and security troops to ready the airfields.
The flights of U.S. food aid, to be staged out of Kenya, were not expected to begin before next week, a Pentagon official said.
The official added that since the survey teams had not assessed needs at the four airfields, it was unclear how many U.S. military personnel ultimately would be involved in the operation.
Meanwhile, Marines from the Pentagon's Central Command were expected to investigate several ports and landing sites that could be staging areas for the delivery of food inland.
One nervous Pentagon official noted that "there is not a lot of control right now" in Somalia, adding that U.S. forces would face some risks in the operation.