UN forces risk sinking into military quagmire in Somalia: Firefights with militiamen become a daily event with rising toll of death and injury

ONE BLOCK from the main compound of Pakistani troops serving with the United Nations intervention force in Somalia, barricades of wire and twisted metal set up by militia forces loyal to the warlord General Mohamed Farah Aideed mark a no-go area.

The October 21 road a mile away has become a daily flashpoint, where sweeps by the UN forces to disarm Somali gunmen routinely end in firefights. Two Pakistani soldiers and at least two Somali fighters died on Monday in a four-hour battle pitting US helicopters, Italian tanks and Pakistani armoured personnel-carriers against militiamen responding with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

The day before, two US soldiers and a Pakistani trooper were wounded on the same road. The fortified compound housing personnel of the UN operation in Somalia, called Unosom, has come under fire almost every night for the past week.

This month the fighting has killed 31 UN troops, 24 of them on 5 June in attacks allegedly organised by Gen Aideed, as well as dozens of civilians and Somali fighters. With Gen Aideed still at large and public resentment of the 26-nation Unosom building, the death toll is likely to rise.

The special UN envoy to Somalia, retired US Navy Admiral Jonathan Howe, professed confidence in an interview that 'this is a moment we are going to have a breakthrough' and that Gen Aideed's armed supporters number only several hundred.

Admiral Howe said the Unosom forces would soon launch a major disarmament sweep throughout the city and continue a political reform process leading to democratic elections in March 1995.

Yet Unosom appears in danger of sinking into a quagmire. Increasingly, the 18,000 foreign troops are seen by Somalis as an occupation force which has shown too little concern for civilian casualties and which has mistakenly believed that hatred for Gen Aideed's brutal past translated into unanimous support for Unosom.

The warning signs of Unosom's change of fortunes have been evident for months. Even before the US-led intervention in Somalia, known as Operation Restore Hope, last December, the then US ambassador to Kenya, Hempstone Smith, wrote a confidential letter to the State Department arguing that foreign military involvement in Somalia would be a disaster. 'If you liked Beirut, you will love Somalia,' he was reported to have written.

The Americans' initial ties with Gen Aideed were cordial, primarily because the then US ambassador, Robert Oakley, refrained from pursuing disarmament in return for a pledge that the warlords would not target US soldiers. The relationship broke down in February when Mr Oakley was forced by his military commanders to retract a pledge to keep one of Gen Aideed's bitterest enemies, Gen Mohamed Hersi Morgan, the son-in-law of the former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, from conquering the port of Kismayu.

Now Gen Aideed's propaganda leaflets call on supporters to kill American troops and civilians, and Admiral Howe is the subject of a 'wanted' poster campaign.

Unosom forces decided to punish Gen Aideed after the 5 June killing of Pakistani troops. 'We were at a stage that people had to know that he had no future,' said Admiral Howe, who issued an order for Gen Aideed's arrest and had 'wanted' posters printed. 'I think the Unosom action against Aideed is having a very healthy impact on the other warlords.'

But other pro-Aideed factions have attacked Unosom's campaign as interference in Somali politics and a sign that it wants to determine the country's future political leadership.

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