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Mogadishu racked by ferocious street battles: Aspin says more US soldiers and armour are to be sent to Somalia

STREET battles of demonic ferocity killed or wounded an estimated 500 people in Mogadishu yesterday, one of the worst tolls the city has known. This time, however, at least 12 of the dead were United States soldiers, with 75 wounded. At least one American solider has been captured.

In Washington, the US Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, said an additional 200 infantry troops backed with tanks and armoured vehicles would be sent to Somalia to beef up the US contingent of peace-keepers.

Another Blackhawk helicopter was brought down by ground- fire. Two were shot down on Sunday night. When US infantry and Malaysian troops arrived to look for survivors, they came under heavy fire.

The battles continued as dusk fell last night. Steven Rifkind, of Save the Children Fund, contacted by satellite telephone, said that he had visited two hospitals earlier in the day. 'There were hundreds, hundreds,' he said, 'women, children, all with awful wounds. It was very bloody, very gory. The Somali staff were completely overwhelmed, exhausted . . . I never believed it would go as far as this.'

According to a Pentagon spokesman in Washington, the fighting started on Sunday evening when the US Quick Reaction Force detained 24 suspected members of General Mohamed Farah Aideed's militia in a 'search and seizure' operation east of the Bakhara market.

Major David Stockwell, the chief UN spokesman in Mogadishu, said that the operation was not aimed at searching for General Aideed but that several key members of his militia had been captured.

Two Blackhawk helicopters were shot down and a group of about 70 Rangers, the US Special Forces, were sent in to recover the wounded and the bodies.

As they were surrounding the helicopters they came under fire, and a task force of two US infantry companies and armoured personnel carriers manned by Malaysian and Pakistani troops were sent in to rescue them.

This force was also attacked. 'Regrettably there were a number of casualties among US forces in these engagements,' the Pentagon spokesman said. 'At this point we consider the operation to be ongoing,' he added.

The ensuing full-scale battle between the UN and the Somalis produced the sort of bloodshed and mayhem reminiscent of the 1992 battle for the city in which hundreds of thousands died. Heavy weapons fired at close range among flimsy cement or mud walls kill or maim people a mile away.

Western journalists in Mogadishu were unable to approach the fighting but saw truckloads of corpses driven away from the Bakhara market.

Somalis working for them said that they had seen the corpse of a white US soldier strapped to a barrow and paraded through the streets by a jubilant crowd of Somalis, and the burnt-out shells of four armoured personnel carriers believed to belong to Malaysian forces.

The charred hulk of a Blackhawk helicopter also lay shattered in the market, a maze of streets where the UN writ has never run and support for General Aideed remains strong.

Yesterday's events will accelerate the impetus in Washington for a speedy withdrawal of all US troops. President Bill Clinton is already under intense pressure to pull American troops out of Mogadishu and has said that the US forces will not be used in future except for emergency operations. This has drawn a sharp plea to stay from Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, who has no troops available to replace the Americans in Mogadishu. Any hint that the US-led UN force is about to pull out will undoubtedly raise the morale of General Aideed's fighters.

In Mogadishu, yesterday's fighting evinced a mood of despair. Mr Rifkind said: 'It came just at a time when we hoped we would get that awful time of the emergency behind us and sart concentrating on long-term development. Now I just don't know where it is going.'