A tense round of pay negotiations between the United Nations and about 900 fired Somali security guards ended in deadlock Sunday with a show of strength by foreign troops helping to prevent violence.
The guards are demanding pay for not working from Dec. 12 through February and threaten violence if their demands are not met.
“Basically they are looking for protection money,” a U.N. World Food Program official said.
U.S. and U.N. troops deployed in force as a delegation of five guards met officials of the World Food Program, which hired the men to protect relief supplies at Mogadishu port before U.S. troops arrived in December.
Some of the guards have threatened to attack U.N. agencies and relief organizations if their demands are not met.
“If they refuse to give us our money, they are insulting the Somali people and we will tell the people to fight them,” said Abdinasser Sheik Mohamed, who described himself as the commander of a “technical battalion” of 110 men.
A technical is the Somali term for a truck or pickup fitted with a heavy weapon. Clan militias use such vehicles in the fighting, which has largely ended since the Americans intervened.
The food program said it paid the men up to Dec. 12, four days after they stopped working, but the guards are demanding salaries for all of December, January and February.
About 800 people demonstrated in support of the guards outside the food program office and a nearby compound rented by the U.S. charity CARE, but most had dispersed by the time negotiations began.
Many Somalis sympathize with the guards, saying that the number of jobs available to Somalis has diminished since the foreign troops came in to protect food for the hungry.
U.S. and U.N. forces took extra security precautions from dawn Sunday. U.S. helicopters circled the city for two hours and U.S. Marines set up new checkpoints to search for arms.
Two armored personnel carriers manned by Pakistani U.N. troops were deployed at the World Food Program compound and sharpshooters were posted on the roof. Other military vehicles guarded the narrow streets nearby.
The U.S. military spokesman, Marine Col. Fred Peck, said the demonstration was peaceful and that as far as he was aware none of those in the crowd were armed.
He said the World Food Program had considered evacuating some staff from Mogadishu but then decided against it.
After two and a half hours of talks, a U.N. official said they had made no progress and would meet again on Tuesday.