Somalis test marines' patience

A BEAUTIFUL woman, 20ft tall, thrust her arms skyward, attempting to link a gold and red chain across a blue sky, while a huge crowd of Somalis stood below and cheered her on.

The scene, captured in a giant painting in what was once Somalia's parliament, depicted the pre-independence struggle by the country's national heroine, the late Hawo Tako, to link north and south into the Somalia nation. The painting was the only thing in parliament that countless gunmen and looters did not touch. Nearly every tile, window, chairs, even the marble floor, had been smashed to bits.

Today Hawo Tako's efforts seem more relevant to central Mogadishu, where hundreds of bombed buildings mark the 'green line', a virtual frontier between the armies of the two main factions, led by Mohamed Aideed and Ali Mahdi Mohamed. The intervention of up to 5,000 US and French troops over the past 12 days to guard food shipments to famine victims in the Somali interior has failed to touch the 'green line'. It remains one of the hottest war zones in the country.

Somali gunmen along the 'green line' appeared outraged yesterday when two US marines driving from parliament to their base began disarming them. Shouting 'Dhig Bundo, Dhig Bundo', Somali for 'put down the gun', L/Cpls Mark Burnett and Troy Sievers appeared to be hopelessly outgunned by a group of Somali fighters along Fiat Avenue. In the end, they took two rifles before beating a fast retreat.

No foreign military forces have even reached the northern section of Mogadishu, and most international aid agencies have pulled out. The 'technicals' - Land Rovers or pick-up trucks with heavy machine-guns or recoilless rifles mounted on top - have reappeared following an initial lull after the US marine landing, and gunmen toting AK-47s are returning to the streets. 'Mogadishu north is getting out of hand,' said Mark Thomas, information officer of the United nations Children's Fund (Unicef). 'The Somalis are getting used to the marines.'

Mr Ali Mahdi, who controls the northern fifth of Mogadishu, and General Aideed, who holds most of the rest, agreed to withdraw about 40 'technicals' each from the city, US officials announced yesterday. The two faction leaders made the same agreement two weeks ago, with no effect.

'The only way is to remove General Aideed from the country,' said Ahmed Mohamed, a 12-year-old boy shuffling through the broken glass on the parliament building floor. 'He always pounded us with his rockets in the streets,' he said, showing where a piece of shrapnel had ripped a hole in his left foot.

US marines on patrol on the southern stretch of the 'green line' believe the security situation is getting worse. They come under fire every day. After gunmen opened up again at the parliament building on Sunday, and a 'technical' aimed its 50-calibre machine-gun at them, the marines decided to fire back. One Somali fighter was wounded. 'The locals say they know we cannot shoot, so they were getting a lot bolder,' said Lt Andrew Milburn, the British-born platoon commander who gave the order to fire. 'I just got tired of people running with their weapons every time we said put them down.'

French forces also came under fire on Sunday near the town of Baidoa, about 150 miles from Mogodishu, by a 'technical' carrying 10 Somali fighters. Three Somalis were wounded. The US military spokesman, Col Mike Hagee, announced yesterday that 1,900 marines would be deployed around Baidoa in the next two days in a big build-up leading to the what is expected to be a move to occupy the nearby town of Bardera, in the heart of Somalia's famine zone.