According to the Americans the Cobra helicopters were on a routine patrol just after 1pm on Saturday when they came across the vehicles, two 'technicals', Land Cruisers with heavy machine-guns mounted on the back, and one American-made armoured personnel carrier. One of the vehicles fired on the helicopters and the helicopters hit back with three anti-tank TOW missiles. All three vehicles were destroyed and the Cobras returned unharmed to the USS Tripoli. The US forces did not send in troops to follow up their action on the ground.
A representative of the United Somali Congress (USC), whose 'technicals' they were, admitted that one of them might have fired on the helicopters and said he apologised if that was the case. General Mohamed Farah Aideed, the USC leader, has welcomed the Americans and told his forces to co-operate with them.
But people living locally say that the vehicles were involved in an inter-clan battle and did not fire on the helicopters. They say nine people died and eleven were wounded. The area where the vehicles were destroyed, west of Mogadishu, is disputed territory between the USC whose fighters there are from the Habir Gedir clan and the Murasade clan who are allied to Ali Mahdi Mohamed, the leader who controls the north of the city.
Whatever the truth of this first killing by American troops, the belief in Mogadishu is that the US troops were not provoked. This may not damage the American mission. Many Somalis say it was a good thing because the Americans have demonstrated their firepower and this will frighten the rest of the fighters. Other Somalis warn, however, that the incident will erode Somali goodwill towards the US forces.
Whichever feeling prevails, it is clear that Operation Restore Hope is now driven by purely military considerations. There is one question which US officials, military and civilian, are continually being asked now: When are you going to Baidoa? The answer is always the same: 'We will go when we are ready. Look what we have achieved in five days. We are getting there as soon as possible.' One US source said yesterday that there had been intense pressure from aid agencies to move faster and their voice was being listened to in Washington, but he said the military planners worked on a worst-case scenario and would not put any of their troops at risk.
The marines' arrival in Mogadishu has driven gunmen and bandits inland and many of them are looting and killing in places like Baidoa, which has been reduced to chaos in the past week. About 50 people a day are dying of starvation in the town.
Having taken four days to secure the port and airport at Mogadishu, the marines yesterday moved to an airbase at Balidoogli, about 60 miles inland. Three C-141 aircraft joined them, flying directly from the snows of North America to bring a company of the 10th Mountain Division to the sweltering heat of the Somali plain. The former military airbase will provide a stepping-stone to Baidoa, where the US forces are expected to arrive by the end of the week. US civilians working for USAID are expected to travel to Baidoa today to establish a civilian presence before troops arrive.
At Balidoogli yesterday, the troops were preceded by an air- drop of leaflets urging people to bring their weapons and exchange them for food. A similar operation will precede the taking of Baidoa. Meanwhile, the food relief operation was dramatically emphasised at the port yesterday by the huge black hull of the First Lieutenant Jack Lummus.
The first of seven water pumping generators was switched back on at the Afgoi well fields, 25km (15 miles) west of Mogadishu. It will pump piped water to the capital for the first time in two months thanks to an unusual UN agreement. UN officials have arranged to retrain gunmen, who kept looters at bay for two years, as plumbers and mechanics. 'Our ceremony here is an inauguration of life. Water is life,' said Mohamed Awale, a senior aide to Gen Aideed and one of the signatories to the deal.