Gunfire greets US Marines in Somalia

Bandits driven away from food stores in Mogadishu port area; Troops attack baffled local UN employees


Mark Huband in Mogadishu

The Guardian, 10 December 1992


HEAVY gunfire broke out in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, last night for the first time for five days, hours after 1,800 American Marines secured control of the city’s airport and harbour.

In the first stage of the US-led intervention aimed at protecting famine relief supplies, American helicopters circled the city for hours during the night after a spate of attacks by bandits who shot and wounded three United Nations and relief agency staff.

Elsewhere in Somalia, a fierce faction fight in the south-western port of Kismayo and large-scale looting in the central town of Baidoa led to battles which left scores dead, including at least one Somali aid worker, relief agencies said.

A hundred and twenty French Marines and foreign legionnaires arrived yesterday afternoon and took up positions in Mogadishu around the university. France has said it will send 2,100 troops as part of the US-led Operation Restore Hope.

The United Nations’ senior adviser, Liviu Bota, said last night that two UN staff were wounded when they came under gunfire in two separate incidents as they drove through Mogadishu. A relief worker with the SOS-Kinderdorf organisation was seriously wounded when gunmen sprayed his car with bullets.

The first US troops – elite Seal frogmen – came ashore just before 1am local time, ignoring a request from one of the country’s main faction leaders, General Mohamed Farah Aideed, for the operation to take place during daylight.

Twenty face-painted Marines emerged from the Indian Ocean surf in small dinghies. Surrounded by around 50 journalists illuminating their every step with powerful television lights, they then tried to hide in gorse bushes on dunes overlooking the airport.

Marines landing in Mogadishu port, where 9,000 tonnes of relief food is awaiting distribution, came under fire from bandits as they reached the shore. They returned fire and drove away the bandits without casualties on either side, according to a Marine involved in the exchange.

Throughout the landing, the looming shadow of the USS Tripoli lingered on the horizon, silhouetted by occasional forks of lightning further out to sea. At 4am, the press were asked by one Marine to “clear the beach otherwise it’s going to be a mess. We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

But the presence of American television’s celebrity presenters beaming live coverage to the US from the nearby airport made it a media event even the Marines had to play along with.

In Washington, the defence secretary, Dick Cheney, expressed anger over live television coverage of the landing. “I didn’t like it. My immediate reaction was one of anger…Fortunately it didn’t create any major problems for us and nobody was hurt,” he said.

Somalis saw none of this. They were not allowed anywhere near the larger-than-life drama happening on the same beach where their deposed dictator Siad Barre, a close ally of the US, had hundreds of his opponents executed.

The first US troops occupied the airport terminal building. A group of 10 Somalis, employed by the UN to guard a nearby hangar, was sleeping. Marines ran in yelling that they should lie down, but most Somalis do not speak English. The US military did not consult any of the organisations working in Somalia about the operation and had no interpreter.

“The American force came and grabbed me and began to kick me. They forced me to the ground with my head face down. One of the people with me had his hands bound so tightly with a plastic strip that his wrists were bleeding,” said Manomed Nur Feedoow, who has a large bruise on his forehead and a bloody wound on his arm from where he was kicked.

“I thought the Marines told me to stand up. But they were telling me to lie down.”

Two bound Somalis were freed when General Imtiaz Shaheen, commander of the 500-strong Pakistani UN force in Somalia who is enraged by the US refusal to consult the UN, strode over to the hangar and cut the men free with his penknife. Lieutenant-General Frank Libutti, head of the US operation in Somalia, said: “Anybody not appearing to be part of the Paki forces at the airport was to be taken under control. The Marines are permitted to take action to protect themselves and innocent civilians. Thus far the Marines and soldiers have done extremely well.”

Thousands of people lined the streets of Mogadishu as the sweating Marines trudged through the steamy heat.

For the first time in more than two years of civil war, famine and terror, Somalis wandered through their war-tom, politically fractured city with an uninhibited common purpose – that of staring at the invasion force. “Hey mister,” one man said, “What is their aim? Solve this problem? Huh. No chance.”

Just before dusk a convoy of tanks, jeeps and trucks reached the American embassy, deserted for two years and thoroughly looted. Now a Stars and Stripes is dangling by one corner from the embassy flag-pole and Marines lie in defensive posture beneath trees dripping with rain.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited