Three Italian soldiers die in shoot-out: Somali gunmen fire on UN troops after house-to-house arms search

TWO DOZEN Italian tanks and armoured vehicles raced away from Checkpoint Pasta in south Mogadishu yesterday after Somali gunmen gave the United Nations intervention force a tough lesson in urban warfare.

Three Italian soldiers were killed and 21 others wounded, four gravely, in clashes that erupted after a pre-dawn weapons search in an area controlled by the fugitive faction leader General Mohamed Farah Aideed. At least 16 Somalis were reported wounded.

The 800-strong Italian force, backed by six tanks, about 20 armoured personnel carriers, and 400 Somali police, entered the area at 5.40am and after conducting house-to-house searches for an hour, began to withdraw. Women and children then erected barricades of twisted metal and burning tyres and began stoning the Italians as Somali snipers opened fire. Two helicopters were hit by ground fire and a grenade struck an armoured vehicle.

The US Quick Reaction Force was called in to help. It arrived 40 minutes later, bringing a company of US marines and two Cobra attack helicopters. The sniper fire spread to the main October 21 road near a garage owned by Gen Aideed's chief financier, Osman Atto, which was destroyed on Wednesday by US Cobra helicopters.

But the Somali fighters had won the day. By late afternoon, Somali militiamen had driven the Italians from two checkpoints they had held for several weeks and had won control of a zone of nearly one square mile.

'The general preferred to pull back and return in the next few days,' said Lt-Col Giovanni Fiantini, a spokesman for the Italian forces. Asked if he was surprised at the ferocity of the Somali fighters, he said gravely: 'Yes. This is the first time in six months that we have had resistance like this.'

The clashes followed a statement on Thursday by the special UN envoy, the retired US admiral, Jonathan Howe, saying that 'coercive disarmament operations in Mogadishu are being directed against those, like Gen Aideed, who use violence to gain political power'.

But the Italian operation was further evidence that the UN forces have underestimated the intensity of resistance by Gen Aideed's forces. The UN ordered the arrest of Gen Aideed, chairman of the United Somali Congress and Somali's most powerful warlord, following the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers on 5 June.

Since then an additional 10 soldiers from the 26-nation force have been killed. At least 80 Somalis have died in the recent weeks of fighting.

The aborted arms search yesterday took place in a particularly sensitive area on the border between north and south Mogadishu. The area, controlled by Gen Aideed's Habr Gadir clan militia, is located about one mile from north Mogadishu neighbourhoods that are dominated by fighters loyal to the general's bitter enemy, Ali Mahdi Mohamed.

In Colorado Springs, Colorado, a US soldier was convicted of negligent homicide in a court martial following the death of a Somali civilian during a relief operation. Specialist James Mowris, 26, was reduced in rank, fined dollars 450 ( pounds 300) and banned from leaving the base for three months.

BONN - Germany's parliament yesterday approved a controversial government deployment of troops to Somalia, as demanded by the country's supreme court, Reuter reports.

The vote cleared the final hurdle for Germany's biggest deployment of ground forces abroad since the Second World War, a further step toward Chancellor Helmut Kohl's plans for the united country to play a wider military role in the world.

(Photograph omitted)

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