US marines strike at militia base

A FIRESTORM was how Major- General Charles Wilhelm described the United States marines' biggest battle against Somali fighters since they intervened in Somalia a month ago with the stated mission of protecting famine aid from looters and armed gangs.

It began just after dawn yesterday when Maj-Gen Wilhelm, the marine commander in Somalia, dispatched Cobra helicopter gunships and M-1 tanks to two cantonments where one of the main warlords, General Mohamed Farah Aideed, was supposed, at the Americans' urging, to have locked up part of his arsenal.

US snipers fired several rounds to start the assault, and within seconds 400 marines pounded the Somali positions with rockets, mortars and AT-4 surface-to-surface missiles, otherwise known as 'bunker busters'. At least six helicopters hovered overhead firing Gatling guns and missiles.

Initially, the Somali fighters, armed with anti-aircraft guns, mortars and even the feared Soviet multiple rocket-launcher, the Stalin Organ, put up spirited resistance. But it did not last.

How many Somalis were killed remained unknown. The US military, as it did in the Gulf war, has refused increasingly to release Somali casualty figures. At least 15 gunmen surrendered. There was one wounded American, a marine shot accidentally 40 minutes before the attack started.

'In this particular area, a strong display of firmness, determination and resolve will prevent this from happening in the future,' said Gen Wilhelm.

What happened, according to the American version, was that two US marine patrols came under fire from the cantonments on Wednesday afternoon. That the four ageing Soviet-built tanks, artillery pieces, mortars and 'technicals' - heavily armed trucks - were still active had been evident for two weeks. The north-western outskirts of Mogadishu have been repeatedly a battleground between Gen Aideed's Habr Gedir clan army and fighters of the rival Murosade militia, most spectacularly when an artillery duel lit up the skies on New Year's Eve during the visit of President Bush.

After warning members of Gen Aideed's faction of the United Somali Congress in Mogadishu of 'dire consequences' unless everyone in the cantonments surrendered by 6am yesterday, the marines sealed off the area late on Wednesday night. Gen Aideed was in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, attending a UN- sponsored meeting to set up a national peace conference.

The marines used loudspeakers to tell the occupants in Somali 'that they were surrounded by overwhelming force' and should surrender, Gen Wilhelm said. They did not.

Gen Wilhelm and other US military spokesmen insisted that the attack did not signal a change in the mission of the 29,000-strong US-led intervention forces - from protecting the relief effort to confiscating the weapons of the militias - but yesterday's operation was the biggest display of firepower so far. The marines, many of whom have privately expressed disappointment at not seeing action, have been far more aggressive in disarming Somali gunmen in recent days, especially as they pushed out into the northern sector of Mogadishu.

The United Task Force (Unitaf), as the intervention force is known, has been sharply criticised, especially by Somali civilians, for failing to disarm the militiamen and merely confining heavy weapons to cantonments where they could be used to fight another day.

Security in parts of Mogadishu and the southern port of Kismayo has actually deteriorated since the 9 December landing of the marines. The UN Children's Fund (Unicef) said yesterday that while the intervention has improved security generally, 'the presence of Unitaf forces has brought new problems, including growing tension in Mogadishu and other areas where Unitaf seems unable to maintain an acceptable level of security. In some cases and in some areas, the level of insecurity is much greater than before the arrival of Unitaf forces,' it added.

ADDIS ABABA - Somali warlords have reached a tentative agreement to hold a peace conference in April, diplomats close to exploratory talks in Ethiopia said, Reuter reports.

The warlords and political leaders are expected to sign a commitment today to hold a national reconciliation conference in April, the diplomats said. 'They have agreed,' one diplomat said. But he warned that the Somalis could still change their minds.

(Photograph omitted)

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