somalia refugees
Refugees queue for rations at the camp in Mogadishu

At least seven Somali refugees have been killed after government troops opened fire during a handout of corn rations in the famine-stricken country.

Soldiers have been accused of sparking the chaos by trying to steal some of the rations being distributed at capital city Mogadishu's largest famine refugee camp.

Camp residents said refugees joined the scramble after witnessing the attempted theft of some of the 290 tons of dry rations - prompting the troops to open fire.

"They fired on us as if we were their enemy," said refugee Abidyo Geddi.

"When people started to take the food then the gunfire started and everyone was being shot. We cannot stay here much longer.

A malnourished Somali child cries at the Banadir hospital in Mogadishu
"We don't get much food and the rare food they bring causes death and torture."

The deaths illustrate the dangers and challenges of getting help to a nation that has been essentially ungoverned for two decades and is now in the grip of a severe famine.

Aid workers are puzzling over how to help the starving without helping corrupt troops.

The gunmen are known to either prey on the refugees, compete for security contracts to guard the food, or steal it and take a share of the proceeds.

The situation echoes the one in 1992 that prompted deployment of a US-led, multi-national force to safeguard the delivery of food.

A soldier at the refugee camp in Mogadishu
That international intervention collapsed in 1993 after two US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and 18 servicemen killed in a single battle in Mogadishu.

But with UN officials acknowledging that some aid in Somalia is bound to be stolen during delivery, there is no serious discussion about military intervention.

David Orr, spokesman for the World Food Program, which was overseeing the handout, said: "Will there be losses? Sure. Will there be some looting? Of course there will be.

"What we have to do is try to minimise it. This is the highest risk environment in the world the safety of our staff and getting food into the right hands are our highest priorities."