Somalia air raid puts aid at risk: UN Secretary-General rejects call to suspend 'peace by force' after attack kills at least 16 and avenging crowds beat journalists to death

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THE DEATHS of at least 16 Somalis in a United States helicopter gunship raid on a house in Mogadishu and the revenge murders of at least two journalists have cast doubt on the future of the US-led United Nations operation in Somalia.

The Italian government has called for military operations to be suspended; its anxiety over the danger its soldiers are facing is said to be echoed in other capitals among the 24 countries with troops in Somalia. After a cabinet meeting in Rome, Fabio Fabbri, the Italian Defence Minister, called last night for a 'cooling off period, the suspension of combat operations, a resumption of dialogue and a call for disarmament'.

He said the Italian contingent had been sent to 'take part in peacekeeping and humanitarian work defined by a UN resolution, not to impose peace by force'. The Italian response was criticised by Boutros Boutros- Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, who said in a statement that it was unacceptable for any troop contingent in Somalia to take action outside the UN command.

After at least 16 Somalis died in the attack by several US Cobra gunships, two journalists were murdered by a crowd when they tried to cover the incident. Dan Eldon, 22, a photographer with dual US-British nationality working for Reuters, and Hansi Krauss, a German photographer with Associated Press, were beaten to death. Two others are missing, presumed dead. Scott Peterson, reporting for the Daily Telegraph, was treated for a machete cut on his head.

Witnesses said the gunships poured rocket fire into the building and then returned several times and strafed it with machine-gun fire. When journalists arrived at the burning shell they were attacked by a furious crowd trying to pull out the dead and wounded.

One journalist who escaped was Mohamed Shaffi, of Reuters. He ran to safety. Mr Shaffi said that he was filming inside the compound when he was attacked. Before fleeing he gave his camera to a Somali he recognised. He said he was beaten, punched and kicked as he ran for cover. He burst into a nearby residential compound but was chased back on to the street by the woman living in it. 'Then this gunman caught me up against the wall. He fired three, four or five rounds at me, I don't know, but I was knocked down and thought, 'Shit. This guy is gonna kill me but I'm not gonna die on the ground' . . . So I got up and ran. I just kept running. I saw a pickup truck in front of me so I dived into the back.'

Mr Shaffi was treated for a wound to the head and one to the ear.

The car that picked him up drove through narrow backstreets trying to reach a hospital, but was blocked by mobs throwing stones at the Western media. Lying semi-conscious in the back of another pickup truck, he was driven to the US military hospital inside the UN fortress.

It was at this hospital that Mr Eldon's body was identified. He had been beaten and stoned to death. 'I saw Dan running ahead of me with mobs chasing. He was with Anthony.' (Macharia, a Reuter television soundman). Mr Macharia and a fellow Kenyan, Hos Maina, a Reuter photographer who arrived in Mogadishu on Monday to replace Mr Eldon, are both missing and presumed dead. The body of Mr Krauss was also seen by Somalis who knew him but they said angry Somalis would not let anyone approach to retrieve it.

Later Somalis brought 16 bodies, one a woman, to the hotel where journalists stay. They were wrapped in sheets and covered in flies.

Although hospitals in Mogadishu said 30 bodies had been brought in after the American attack, Somalis working for aid agencies last night claimed up to 100 people had been killed. In Mogadishu what people believe to be true is more important than the truth.

The aid workers said the attack took place on a house where elders from several clans were meeting, some of whom supported the fugitive General Mohamed Farah Aideed, whose arrest has been ordered by the UN. However, one report said they were also from clans not directly involved in the fighting. The deaths and the continuing UN failure to capture or kill the general will further weaken the UN's position.

Aid agencies, whose work the 20,000-strong UN force is supposed to be protecting, are deeply concerned at the militaristic approach of the US and are distancing themselves from the UN operation because it makes them a target for gunmen.

'We don't want to fly under their banner,' said Mick Keily, of Goal, the Irish aid agency in Mogadishu. Other agencies needing UN protection to move supplies said some UN contingents were unwilling to leave their compounds for fear of attack.

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 19

Talk, don't shoot, page 20