Mogadishu - Mayhem erupted at Mogadishu's airfield yesterday after UN troops abandoned the outer perimeter and hundreds of gunmen and looters invaded, watched by US and Italian marines from beach redoubts.
Somali militias, in "technical" cars mounted with mortars and anti-aircraft guns, backed by unarmed UN-trained local police, fired wildly in the air to clear hordes of looters from the former peace-keepers' base.
US and Italian marines dived for cover behind sand dunes as bullets whistled over their heads.
"We watched them for a while. We never saw the technicals aim at us," Lieutenant-General Tony Zinni said.
General Zinni, who watched the chaotic scene from the top of a sand dune in the grey dawn light, added: "MEU units [Marine Expeditionary Units] fired warning shots. One technical waved at us and then pulled back."
Several grenade or mortar bombs exploded at one end of the runway. It was unclear who fired these, but Somalis said it could have been other militia gangs angry at not sharing the plunder.
US Super Cobra attack helicopters swooped over the chaos and a "Spectre" AC-130 gunship circled the sky through the day.
Events began at dawn, when the rearguard of 1,500 Pakistanis pulled back from the outer walls of the airfield base in a long convoy of tanks and armoured vehicles bound for the sea port.
The Pakistanis are due to leave by ship today, and are expected to be followed later by the 1,800 US marines and 400 Italian soldiers who came ashore on Tuesday to cover the UN's retreat.
Somali militias outside the airport gates, and local unarmed police inside, had been positioned to stop crowds from invading. But the looters scaled the walls and moved through deserted warehouses and old troop camps, stealing everything from rations to mattresses.
Many of the mostly female looters had slept around the airport for days so that they could be first in the gates.
Somalis said the militias, destroyers of their country over four years of ethnic feuding, were actually deployed by leaders trying to ensure the peaceful departure of US-led forces.
US diplomats have held talks with the Somalis, notably prominent businessman Osman Hassan Ali "Atto", on security for the operation.
"We want them to leave in peace. We need every friend we can get, and I wouldn't advise anyone to have America as an enemy," Osman Atto said at his house in the city. He said that the "technicals" were from the Somali National Alliance militia of Mohamed Farah Aideed, the warlord who fought US-led forces in Mogadishu in 1993.
Mr Atto said he was trying to cement an accord between rival clans to jointly run the airport and port.
Militias from the Abgal clan, rivals of General Aideed and Osman Atto's Habre Gedir, occupied the southern section of the airfield, but inter- factional clashes apparently did not happen.
In a bold gesture yesterday, General Aideed visited the airport gates to order his militia commanders to stop the looting, witnesses said. It was his first public appearance for a month, and Somalis say he has been lying low because of fears that US forces would take revenge. At the airport, he was well within range of US marines, some of whom remember their comrades' deaths with bitterness. The Pakistanis heading for the port were the last of a 30,000-strong UN force from 28 nations deployed in Somalia over the past two years to try to end famine and restore peace and government. The operation is widely perceived as a failure, with the UN troops leaving the country much as they found it: in chaos.
Whilst the UN action prevented mass starvation, it failed to restore political order among the rival clans and sub-clans that control the country.
The US contingent suffered, in particular, withdrawing last March after losing 36 men, some of whom were captured and their bodies dragged through Mogadishu's streets. In all, 121 UN troops died in Somalia, along with several journalists. The last handful of international reporters will also leave Mogadishu today.Reuse content