After nearly two years in Mogadishu, the last members of a multinational peace-keeping force once numbering nearly 30,000 men are due to leave the country today. Some 1,500 Pakistani troops will withdraw from positions around the capital's airport to their embarcation point at the nearby seaport and sail for Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania.
The departure coincides with the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and like their fellow-believers from Pakistan, the Somalis will be celebrating with a special meal this evening. In the old days, before the outbreak of civil war in 1991, there would have been merriment and dancing in Mogadishu but festivities will be tempered by the sombre realities of life here: banditry, sporadic inter-clan fighting and an uncertain future.
The UN evacuation is being covered by a force of US and Italian marines from a multinational task force of 18 ships. After landing without incident on Monday night, the 1,500 American and 329 Italian troops dug into high sand dunes just a few hundred yards from the sea yesterday, establishing a narrow corridor to the port, about three miles to the north.
Hovercraft landed in exactly the same spots where thousands of US Marines arrived in December 1992 to help to end Somalia's famine and assist UN plans to set up a government. They succeeded in the first but failed miserably in the second.
"It's like that movie Groundhog Day," a US Marine officer said, referring to a film in which the main character lives the same day over and over again. "We keep coming back here and it's always the same."
"Some Somalis feel sorry we're leaving," said Daniel Simpson, US special envoy to Somalia, yesterday. "But others feel foreigners have done all they can to bring about a settlement here and that it is up to the Somalis themselves to sort out their own problems."
To avoid confrontation with local clan militias, both American and Italian marines have been keeping well behind the perimeter of the airport it is their job to secure. The operation, codenamed United Shield, is due to be completed by tomorrow.
The coalition forces' commander, US Lieutenant-General Anthony Zinni, admitted yesterday there might be looting after his troops had departed.
However, both he and Mr Simpson were encouraged by the formation of an inter-clan committee guaranteeing to take over management of the portsessential to the economic life of the capital.
The committee represents both Ali Mahdi, who holds the city's northern districts and an area bordering the airport in the south, and Mohamed Farah Aideed, who controls most of southern Mogadishu.
"No Somali agreement causes one to be optimistic," Mr Simpson said yesterday after meetings with the main clan leaders, "but this one is about very functional issues, namely the port and airport. I think they may be able to make it work. The difficulties will come when they try to move from this on to the more long-term political questions."
Despite repeated mediation attempts by the UN, clan leaders have been unable to reach agreement over the formation of an interim government.
The country has been without any central authority since the January 1991 overthrow of the dictator, Siad Barre. Hundreds of thousands have died in inter-clan fighting.Reuse content