Series of explosions rocks Mogadishu: As American reinforcements arrive, uneasy quiet in Somali capital is broken by blasts and volleys of small-arms fire at patrolling helicopters

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MOGADISHU (Reuter, AFP) - Volleys of explosions boomed out in Mogadishu late last night, orange flashes lit up the horizon and tracer fire directed at patrolling helicopters arced through the sky. The shooting started at about 9.40pm, ending several days of quiet in the city. The UN command could not be reached for comment.

Faint blasts could be heard in the distance, perhaps at the UN-controlled airport. About 30 minutes later a swarm of helicopters swooped overhead and tracer bullets apparently fired by Somali guerrillas tracked them through the night sky. At least two dozen explosions were heard inland from the Sahafi Hotel, where most journalists stay. The horizon flashed several times. Small-arms fire crackled in short bursts.

There was no immediate report of casualties caused by the shelling. Witnesses said AC-130 gunships fired at a road near two former factories, while helicopters of the US Quick-Reaction Force buzzed overhead.

The throb of a large plane could be heard landing at the airport - possibly one of the two AC-130 gunships sent to reinforce US troops after a battle on Sunday in which at least 13 US troops were killed. The aircraft arrived along with 1,700 extra US troops, who began disembarking in Mogadishu earlier yesterday. The AC-130s were used to blitz militia positions in June when UN forces began hunting the fugitive Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed after a massacre of 24 Pakistani peace-keepers.

Most of last night's explosions appeared to be coming from the area of the October 21st Road, along which General Aideed's gunmen have often ambushed UN forces. The city has been generally quiet since mortar shells killed a US soldier and wounded 12 on Monday night.

The UN yesterday said it had found the corpses of two US servicemen killed in fierce fighting last weekend, bringing to three the number of bodies retrieved. The two bodies were sent to the United States for identification, and the Pentagon named the victims as Sergeant Thomas Field and Master Sergeant Gary Gordon.

The UN spokesman gave no other details, but informed sources said the corpses had been dumped in front of UN headquarters in Mogadishu.

Earlier, Suzanne Hofstetter, an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the agency had recovered a corpse believed to be that of a US army Ranger killed in a shootout on Sunday. The third body brings the US death-toll in Sunday's battle to 15.

So far 21 US soldiers have died since the UN took control of the multinational operation in Somalia in May.

Ms Hofstetter also said she had seen a US helicopter pilot held by Somali gunmen. Warrant Officer Michael Durant was in 'good spirits' she said. She was allowed to speak privately with him for about 40 minutes. Warrant Officer Durant was 'joking about food, about the lack of pizza', Ms Hofstetter said, adding that he was 'strong mentally' and had received medical treatment for his injuries. The pilot, who was shown early this week in a videotape looking bruised and scared, gave Ms Hofstetter a letter for his family and she handed him clothes and toiletries.

(Photograph omitted)