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US raids Somali arms cache

UNITED STATES helicopters opened fire with anti-tank missiles and 20mm cannon into a suspected arms cache, and US marines searched for arms yesterday in the biggest show of force by the UN military expedition in Mogadishu in two weeks amid floundering diplomatic efforts to reconcile warring factions.

Six Cobra helicopters attacked a garage owned by Osman Atto, the chief financier of the fugitive Somali warlord, General Mohamed Farah Aideed, just hours after US marines, backed by armoured personnel carriers, set up roadblocks with razor wire in south Mogadishu and carried out body searches for arms.

By early afternoon, thick smoke poured out of Mr Atto's garage, the scene of firefights this week in which two Pakistani soldiers were killed and two American soldiers and one Pakistani trooper were hurt. Angry militiamen at the site attempted to douse the fire with water, and one injured man was seen being helped from the area. The helicopters dropped leaflets warning that similar targets would be attacked.

Since 5 June, when 24 Pakistani troops were killed in clashes with General Aideed's Habr Gadir militia, 32 UN troops have been killed in Somalia. This latest display of military might occurred as political efforts by the UN operation in Somalia, known as Unosom, to defuse sharply rising tension ahead of today's celebrations of Somalia's independence 33 years ago, faltered.

Elders of General Aideed's Habr Gadir sub-clan yesterday called off a meeting to decide whether or not to abandon the warlord, whom the UN wants to arrest for his alleged role in the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers. The elders' decision followed the dropping of leaflets by the UN on Tuesday which described a meeting between the elders and the UN special envoy to Somalia, retired US Navy Admiral Jonathan Howe. 'Many Somalis saw this as a colonial trick to try to divide and rule the clans,' said a Somali.

The arms searches and rocket attack on the suspected arms cache appeared to herald the beginning of a sweep against militiamen loyal to General Aideed, promised by Unosom officials for several days.