Marine landing in Kismayu goes smoothly

UNITED STATES marines took over the southern Somali city of Kismayu yesterday without firing a shot.

Kismayu was the third important stop - after the capital, Mogadishu, and the interior town of Baidoa - in Operation Restore Hope's drive to open up Somalia's famine belt to international food deliveries. Just hours after US marines took over the airport, planeloads of food aid sent by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) began arriving, and giant amphibious vehicles began escorting them into town.

The arrival of the US and Belgian forces effectively ended the faction fighting that international aid officials in the city said had claimed the lives of up to 1,000 people in the past two weeks.

Like the two previous military thrusts into Somalia, the occupation of Kismayu was little more than a training exercise. There was no armed opposition to the dawn amphibious landing, and the only casualty was a US army reporter who broke his leg while climbing out of a helicopter.

'I think the Somalis were a bit shocked when they saw the amphibious vehicles racing around town,' said L/Cpl Jeffrey Vehrs. 'It has been the same since we ran up the beach in Mogadishu. Our commanders told us to expect the military situation to be super-hot in Somalia but so far it has been super-cold.'

In Mogadishu, US soldiers shot a Somali fighter yesterday after a patrol came under fire and a 'technical', an armed pickup truck, trained its 50-calibre machine-gun on the American troops. US military spokesmen said they were unable to confirm if a Somali fighter had died.

Despite the ease with which the US forces have moved into Somalia and occupied Mogadishu, Baidoa, and Kismayu, aid officials confirmed yesterday that up to 30 trucks of the ICRC had gone missing in the town of El Man, about seven miles north of the capital. The first big food convoy, carrying 300 tons of wheat, reached Baidoa, about 150 miles west of Mogadishu, yesterday under US escort.

The occupation of Kismayu followed meetings on Saturday between President George Bush's special envoy to Somalia, Robert Oakley, and the main Somali warlord in Kismayu, Col Umar Jess, and community leaders.

The aircraft carrier USS Kittyhawk, anchored off the Kismayu port, dispatched an F-14 fighter jet to overfly the town to impress upon Somali gunmen the folly of resistance.

Other American jets and Cobra helicopters flew over the town yesterday in a display of strength. 'Col Jess is on his best behaviour,' a senior US diplomat said.

The next target, the south-western city of Bardera, could be considerably more difficult to take. There, the last important remaining loyalist to the ousted president, Siad Barre, his son-in-law, Mohamed Said Hirsi, still wields great influence down towards the Kenyan border. A senior US official, speaking off the record yesterday, called him a war criminal and said the US would not negotiate with him under any circumstances.