A broken city waiting for the Marines: Last night the UN authorised American troops to go ashore in Somalia to police the distribution of aid. In Mogadishu, Richard Dowden awaits their arrival

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OVER THIS broken city a question mark hangs: When will they come? Last night groups huddled round oil lamps in the darkened rain-soaked streets - there has been no electricty for more than a year - and talked about when they would come and what they would do when they came.

Somewhere off the coast at least 3,000 US Marines had been waiting in the USS Tripoli and two other US naval vessels for agreement at the United Nations that they move ashore and take control. The US has offered the UN up to 28,000 troops for Somalia and President Francois Mitterrand announced yesterday that France would contribute.

They will meet no resistance. The three main groups fighting for power in the south say they will welcome the Americans' arrival. Aid agencies, some of which vigorously opposed 'the militarisation of aid' when the US first suggested troops, have changed their tune. Many on the ground here are not only in favour but asking why it did not happen before.

'We welcome military intervention to secure the delivery of humanitarian aid and, in general, it will be welcomed by the people,' said Stephen Tomlin, director of International Medical Corps. The UN's 100-day plan to deliver 80,000 tons of food to thousands of starving Somalis is behind schedule. Fifty-three days on, only 9,000 tons has been delivered to the port here, where it has remained, blocked by gunmen who would loot it as it left. One estimate is that for every dollars 1,000 of food delivered, dollars 10,000 is stolen or spent on protection.

There is widespread disillusion with the UN, which has barely secured the airport, let alone escorted a convoy. 'Here you either fight or you negotiate and the UN has done neither,' said a Somali doctor.

The US is understood to have been sounding out protagonists in the past few days but is keeping the date secret. The expectation was that they would arrive soon after the UN wording had been agreed, leaving no time for gangs to give rivals a last punch.

The capital remains calm. The clan war which began in November last year ended in ceasefire four months ago, but most men carry guns, using them in robberies or disputes or just for fun. 'We have a society here which has been destroyed,' says the Somali doctor. 'Will the Americans rebuild the infrastructure and the institutions? There are no courts so will they catch and try looters?'

Crucially, will they create the security to allow Somali men to stop carrying guns? Osman Hassan Ali Atto, right-hand man to General Mohammed Farah Aideed, whose forces control most of Mogadishu, pointed to his G-3 automatic rifle and M-79 grenade launcher, propped against the hat stand in his bedroom, and said: 'I can only give these up when genuine security has been established, when I feel not threatened any more.'

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