US forces ready to step up action against Somalis

AMERICAN military forces in Somalia have launched a more aggressive phase in Operation Restore Hope in what they admit could spark more firefights with Somali gunmen similar to Thursday's attack on a large arms depot in north-western Mogadishu.

'We are providing preconditions for us getting involved in confrontations with 'technicals' and gangsters,' General Robert Johnston, the United States commander in Somalia, told an American television network. Technicals are makeshift battlewagons armed with heavy machine-guns, anti-aircraft weapons and recoilless rifles used by the warring factions in Somalia.

'This may be Dodge City, but Wyatt is in town,' Col Mike Hagee of the Directorate of Operations said yesterday.

A 450-marine column entered the 'gun market' in north-eastern Mogadishu yesterday and confiscated 250 rifles, a tank, 10 technicals and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Despite the announcement of the effective closure of the market, the arms the Americans captured yesterday and on Thursday represented a small fraction of the estimated thousands of weapons still in Mogadishu. Some of the weapons at the gun market were turned in in return for bags of rice and wheat, said Col Hagee.

The success of a programme for the voluntary surrender of weapons in the southern port of Kismayu had been 'limited', said Col Hagee, who estimated that 43 guns had been handed in.

The stepped-up US patrols in Mogadishu against arms depots and gunmen have followed sharp criticism from Somalis and international relief agencies of the Americans' failure to pursue disarmament more vigorously. Several foreign aid organisations have said that after a month of Operation Restore Hope, security in some areas of the capital is worse than before the US marines arrived on 9 December.

Gen Johnston, in the television interview, said that intervention forces had succeeded in establishing humanitarian relief sites in Somalia's famine belt in the interior. 'Now we're in phase three,' Gen Johnston said. 'Now we are systematically going after the technicals and the bandits. Now the focus is on eliminating the technicals.'

He predicted more clashes with Somali gunmen because more American forces were patrolling the streets of the capital. 'Especially around Mogadishu, we are now very aggressively patrolling.'

ADDIS ABABA - Somali warring factions reached agreement here yesterday on holding a national reconciliation conference in the Ethiopian capital from 15-18 April, AFP reports.

A member of the delegation of one of the two main warlords, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, said the accord was reached after much international pressure, notably from the United Nations, the US and Ethiopia. The other main warlord, Mohamed Farah Aideed, had been holding out for a ceasefire before agreeing to the date and place where the conference would be held. The source said Gen Aideed had been more conciliatory overnight, especially since US troops attacked his positions on Thursday.

(Photograph omitted)

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