MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somali government troops opened fire today on hungry civilians, killing at least seven people, as both groups made a grab for food at a U.N. distribution site in the capital of this famine-stricken country, witnesses said.

Witnesses accused government soldiers of starting the chaos by trying to steal some of the 290 tons of dry rations as the aid workers tried to hand them out in the biggest camp in Mogadishu for famine refugees. Then refugees joined in the scramble, prompting some soldiers to open fire, the witnesses said.

“It was carnage. They ruthlessly shot everyone,” said Abdi Awale Nor, who has been living at the camp. “Even dead bodies were left on the ground and other wounded bled to death.”

David Orr, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said the food distribution started smoothly at around 6 a.m. but degenerated a couple hours later.

“We got reports of trouble, looting. The trucks were overwhelmed by a mob of people. There were reports of some shots fired,” said Orr, who said he could not confirm any death tolls. He said he didn’t know specifically what type of food was being handed out by the WFP, a U.N. agency.

Another refugee, Muse Sheik Ali, said soldiers first tried to steal some of the food aid, and that other refugees began to take the food.

“Then soldiers opened fire at them, and seven people, including elderly people, were killed on the spot. Then soldiers took the food and people fled from the camp,” he said.