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Marines' ignorance angers Somalis

ON THE beach 30 yards down from Checkpoint 1, where young US marines searching for weapons inspect all vehicles heading into the port town of Merka, American soldiers routinely swim in the blue waters of the Indian Ocean in the nude.

Apparently someone forgot to tell them to pack their bathing suits when they were preparing to spearhead Operation Restore Hope, as the US-led military intervention in Somalia is known. The oversight might seem trivial in Western eyes, but not to Muslim Somalis, especially in Merka, a stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism, which views public displays of nudity as offensive.

When the American forces arrived in Somalia on 9 December they were, in the view of most Somalis, poorly informed about the country they said they were coming to save. Somalis were seen as either pencil-thin famine victims or crazed gunmen high on the drug khat, riding around in Mad Max-style battlewagons known as 'technicals' and engaging in an orgy of looting and rape. All relief work was carried out by foreign aid agencies, and any form of government, even local, did not exist.

One month on, the Americans have done little to educate themselves. Since the marines landed a week ago in Merka, about 60 miles south of Mogadishu, Somalis have been angered by their penchant for talking solely with foreign relief workers and ignoring Somali professionals, local government officials and the Somali Red Crescent Society.

The Americans have tended to refuse to consult local governments throughout the country in the belief that they are puppets of the various clan factions that caused the civil war. But the policy is not absolute. While Robert Oakley, the special US envoy to Somalia, has refused to talk to a leading warlord in southern Somalia, General Mohammed Said Hirsi 'Morgan', whom he has called a 'war criminal', he has negotiated with others, such as the main faction leaders in Mogadishu, General Mohamed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi Mohamed. For many Somalis, this policy makes no sense. 'They are all war criminals,' said a senior Somali relief worker who refused to be named.

Despite serious problems with looting and armed assaults, Merka was relatively peaceful throughout 1992, when much of Somalia was engulfed in civil war. It had a functioning local government, supported by the town elders, and the Somali Red Crescent, together with the International Red Cross set up 135 feeding centres.

Much of the credit goes to al- Itihad, a fundamentalist group which controlled the port and acted as a police force throughout 1992. 'Merka was the only place in Somalia where security was improved by a unified force that cut across clan lines,' said the relief worker (not an Itihad member). 'The people trusted them.'

Now the marines have stepped up their policy of disarming gunmen, and Somali relief workers and officials say that they have launched some house-to-house searches, especially against suspected Islamic militants.

'We welcomed the Americans because the government had broken down and there was a lot of clan warfare,' said Ali Osman, a leading town elder. 'But it is a problem for us if the weapons are simply collected, because when the marines leave we will again be vulnerable to the gangs with arms as we were in the past.'

ADDIS ABABA - Somalia's warlords yesterday reached agreement on implementing aspects of a ceasefire during peace talks, AFP reports. A national reconciliation conference is to be held in Addis Ababa on 15 March.

In Mogadishu, three Somali fighters were killed and one was wounded yesterday in a gunbattle with US marines near the American embassy.

(Photograph omitted)