Mogadishu pins hope on marines: Somalis wonder why US troops did not come sooner, writes Richard Dowden in Mogadishu

IT WAS not an exceptional incident by Somalia's standards. A group of gunmen at the airport yesterday got into a quarrel over an aid cargo, flown in by a light plane. Some say they tried to hijack the plane, others that they were trying to steal the cargo. They opened fire on the UN Pakistani troops who are said to have 'secured' the airport. The Pakistanis returned fire, captured some of the gunmen and handed them over to their clan elders.

One Somali is reported to have been hit and last night more gunfire was heard from the airport. The more relaxed atmosphere Mogadishu has enjoyed in the last few days evaporated as the streets emptied around the UN headquarters near the airport in the south of the city.

The incident is evidence, if more were needed, of the ineffectiveness of the UN force and the need for the eagerly awaited US force. The hull of a huge vessel can be seen on the horizon and everyone assumes it is the USS Tripoli with 1,800 marines.

There is also a very strong feeling here that the timing of their arrival has little to do with UN planning and much to do with the arrival of the US television networks. Last night Ted Koppel was due in town with a team of 15 to add to an ABC crew of 12. One flight from London to Nairobi made an unscheduled stop at Larnaca to pick up a CNN crew of five and several tons of equipment.

Many Somalis who have seen their country destroyed while the UN and the US ignored it, feel the arrival of the Americans has more to do with US politics than Somalia's needs. 'The general feeling is that the Americans will be welcome but I am unsure about their overall objective,' said a senior Somali aid worker. 'Why are they coming only now? If the scheme works Mr Bush goes out looking good and America gets nice pictures of starving kids being fed at Christmas. If it doesn't work, Mr Clinton inherits a problem.'

All the aid agencies agree that the mass starvation which occurred in July and August has been reduced to pockets such as Bardera, where 40 to 50 people are dying daily. The new harvest is about to be gathered and the general situation has improved. Observers point out that if the militarisation of food aid had to take place, it should have happened months ago. None of the serious aid agencies are planning to alter their programmes when the US troops come but some are sending away staff during this uncertain period. 'We resent the idea that this is being done for our benefit,' said one aid agency chief.

Meanwhile, the price of getting the services of an armed guard - an essential accessory for any foreigner - is rising hourly as television crews hire vehicles and the guards who go with them. The Independent yesterday hired Ali (with an AK-47) and Omar (with a G-3 assault rifle). They come complete with a small Toyota for dollars 90 (pounds 59) per half-day. The street price of a second-hand AK-47, which had fallen from dollars 200 to dollars 50 last week, is also expected to rise.

One of the questions is whether the force will disarm these guards and gunmen when they arrive. Nicolas De Metz, head of the Medecins sans Frontieres mission in Mogadishu, said yesterday that to dispense with their services immediately would mean putting several thousand armed but jobless men on the streets overnight.

These gunmen are not always biddable; one tried to kill an aid worker who sacked him for stealing. Many use their weapons to emphasise a point, and just how the US marines will react to such language is crucial. 'What will happen when the first Somali dies at the hands of the Americans?' asked one Somali, pointing out that Somali culture is steeped in retaliation and blood revenge.

The United Somali Congress (USC), led by General Mohamed Farah Aideed, is probably the largest force; although its leader has welcomed the US initiative, he is using it to play off Washington and the UN, with posters depicting the former as friend and the latter as invader.

Yesterday, in one of the more bizarre scenes in this nightmarish city, a band, complete with leader brandishing a silver-topped baton, drummers, buglers and clarinetists, marched through town followed by banners proclaiming 'Somalia needs peace'. It had been organised by the USC as a show of peaceable strength. Much of its heavy equipment including tanks and artillery pieces have reportedly been moved into hiding.

(Photograph omitted)