Media greet US marines: Armed mercy mission starts under moonlight with seizure of Mogadishu airport

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AMERICAN troops came ashore before dawn today, moving swiftly to seize Mogadishu's airport in an armed mission of mercy to feed Somalia's starving people, and quickly overcame the first major hurdle - the international press.

Under a nearly full moon, the first group of six to eight navy frogmen in Operation Restore Hope came out of the sea on to the beach outside the shattered Somali capital.

'Get your hands up]' one man shouted at a reporter. Then the group slipped off into the sand dunes. A second group arrived, changed into camouflage battle fatigues and headed across the dunes toward the long single airstrip.

Later, three rubber boats came ashore and about two dozen troops poured off and walked up through the dunes into the glare of television lights.

The marines were so confident of taking the airport and port by dawn that journalists had earlier been called to a press conference on the runway an hour later.

However, scores of reporters, tipped off by Washington that the operation would begin before dawn, were waiting at the airport and the other key installation, the port. Thus the marines' first experience of Somalia was the glare of television lights and a battery of cameras, broadcasting to prime-time television audiences in America.

A CBS television spokesman said they had received a request from the Pentagon not to use camera lights because they were interfering with the troops' night vision equipment. It was expected that a second amphibious landing would follow shortly in the early hours of this morning. Some reporters suggested the second phase was planned to take place after a commercial break.

Earlier yesterday in Washington, President-elect Bill Clinton could offer no 'artificial timetable' for American withdrawal. He said he appreciated President George Bush's wish to have the operation over by the time he leaves the White House, but added no one could say whether that could be achieved.

The marines were scheduled to come ashore from three amphibious assault ships led by the USS Tripoli. Backing them was a navy battle group led by the aircraft carrier USS Ranger.

By yesterday afternoon, the last guns disappeared from Mogadishu's streets yesterday, driven out of the city or underground by the coming marines and the international force in the first unilateral intervention in a country to be sanctioned by the United Nations.

About an hour after the landing, there were half a dozen unexplained gunshots from a distant Mogadishu suburb but they did not appear to be related to the marines' arrival, residents said. Apart from the sound of cars as journalists rushed back to their hotel from the airport, Mogadishu was extremely quiet.

The landing is the most dramatic example of the 'New World Order' so far. The operation will be the biggest UN-backed military operation in Africa since UN troops were flown to the Congo in 1960.

Then they moved in at the request of a government. This time there is no government and for the past two years the country has been torn to pieces by civil strife, leaving a million people exposed to starvation. Thousands have died.

Robert Oakley, US Special Envoy to Somalia, said that he had spoken to General Mohammed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi Mohammed, the two leaders whose factions dominate the capital, and both had agreed to cooperate with the US intervention and to order armed followers to stay away from the port and airport.

Asked what orders the US troops had if they saw people with guns, he said: 'It will be very hard, if not impossible, for a marine to distinguish someone of good intention from someone with evil intention. If you appear with a 50 cal machine gun you are going to be in peril.'

The envoy described the atmosphere as very positive and cited the fact that the price of an AK-47 rifle had gone down from dollars 200 to dollars 300 a few days ago to dollars 20 to dollars 30 today 'because they don't feel they are going to be using them'.

Mr Oakley said that the longer term aim was to change the operation from a US-led coalition acting at the request of the UN to a purely UN operation. He said the question of disarmament had been raised but that would take time and it was up to the Somalis 'to take the leap'.

All indications were that the Americans would be warmly welcomed - at least initially. 'We want the Americans to come,' said one young gunman in town yesterday. But his companion, carrying a US made G3 rifle, said he would hide his gun in his home. If the Americans tried to take it from him he would shoot them, he said.

For aid agencies that have been trying to feed more than a million Somalis, the security provided by the UN force will be a great relief, although many worry about the style of the operation and, in particular, about a 'shoot-to-feed' psychology.