MOGADISHU (AFP) — UN-chartered food vessels arrived on Monday at a Somali port under a French navy escort on a two-month arrangement to protect relief shipments from pirate attacks, a UN official said.

The freighters, MV Rozen and MV Semlow, docked at Merka port about 100 kilometres (63 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu, escorted by French frigate Commandant Ducuing.

“They arrived without any fear of piracy attacks,” said the UN official who requested anonymity.

Rozen was carrying 2,900 tonnes of sorghum, a cereal crop, while Semlow had 850 tonnes of beans, porridge and maize.

WFP chief Josette Sheeran praised the French escort operation, saying it came as some of the worst fighting and drought has devastated Somalia.

“Piracy has damaged our ability to reach Somalia’s most vulnerable people. We cannot tackle this challenge alone and are grateful to those helping to protect our ships,” she said in a statement.

“We, like France, hope other nations will urgently step up and follow the French example,” she added.

In September, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his navy would deploy a warship off Somalia to protect delivery of food aid to beleaguered Somalis from attacks by pirates.

Because of the disastrous state of the country’s roads and the civil unrest, aid organisations prefer to use ships and 80 percent of UN aid reaches Somalia by sea.

But the cargo ships are a prime target for pirates, who operate high-powered speed boats and carry heavy machine guns and rocket launchers.

In addition to profiteering from selling the food aid, the pirates demand ransoms to free the ships’ crews or fishing and cruise vessels.

There have been at least 26 attacks by pirates, including three against WFP-chartered ships, this year off Somalia’s 3,700 kilometres (2,300 miles) of unpatrolled coastline.

The attacks stopped in the second half of 2006 during six months of strict rule by Islamists, who were ousted by Ethiopian and Somali government troops at the end of the year.

In recent months, the multinational Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CTF 150), based in Djibouti to fight terrorism in the volatile region, has upped surveillance in the piracy-infested waters.

Three weeks of fighting between Ethiopia-Somali forces and Islamist-led rebels has forced nearly 200,000 Mogadishu residents out of their homes, bringing to 580,000 the number of civilians displaced by insecurity since February, WFP said.

Aid groups have complained that insecurity has blocked them from accessing civilians trapped in the city.

The Shabelle region — Somalia’s breadbasket — has also suffered its worst crop in 13 years, leaving nearly a million people on the edge of starvation.

Many are living in desperate conditions — camped on the sides of roads during the rainy season — without shelter, basic sanitation and medical assistance.

Somalia, which lies at the mouth of the Red Sea, has been without an effective government since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre sparked a bloody power struggle.