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Weapons Merchants Fall on Hard Times in Somalia

By Dele Olojede
Newsday

MOGADISHU, Somalia

Hard times have come to the weapons bazaar tucked away in a dusty four-block neighborhood in the western section of this broken city, where rows and rows of carefully polished rifles and grenade launchers glint in the blinding sun.

On the eve of the expected arrival of the first wave of U.S. Marines heading here to help restore order to a desperately hungry and chaotic country, the price of a Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifle or an American M-16 has fallen by at least a third, from the going rate last week of about $100. Apparently many of the well-armed men roving city streets have concluded that weapons may no longer be an advantage when U.S. forces land.

"It's because of the Americans," said Abdullahi Elme, 25, who rents his battered truck and the services of three gunmen to anyone needing "protection" here -- and that includes almost everyone who doesn't carry a gun.

The change in fortune for the weapons merchants continues a noticeable shift in the atmosphere.

Relief agencies moved hundreds of tons of grain to distribution centers Monday for the second day in a row, as the warring, clan-based factions further relaxed a monthlong embargo on food shipped into Mogadishu port. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the largest non-governmental organization operating in the country, unloaded about 300 tons of grain from a ship off Mogadishu. The shipment was good for a day's needs at the agency's feeding centers around the city, and Tuesday it is expected to bring in more.

"We nearly ran out of food," said a Red Cross official. "If troops come and open the ports, then our lives would be much easier."

After hours of delay Monday at Mogadishu port, the American relief agency CARE successfully trucked out about 800 tons of wheat, for a total 1,200 since Sunday. The delay arose after a faction controlling the port demanded another grain payoff in exchange for safe passage.

"They usually take about 20 tons," said P.S. Sandhu, the port coordinator for CARE, who explained that the gunmen had been paid the day before and the process had to be repeated. Just getting food from here to there throughout Somalia requires complicated negotiations to secure consent of rival clans along the route.

Asked what exactly the problem was, "Lieutenant" Jama Mire of the so-called port militia spoke in the indirect manner in which business is conducted here.

"There is something to be given," Mire said, spreading his long arms in an impatient arc. An official later said the militia was appropriately "pacified," hence the successful late-afternoon shipment.

When the Marines come, they will find a nervous and exhausted city in which almost no one expects more than token resistance, if any.

The country collapsed last year after the despot Mohamed Siad Barre was forced from power and the various clans that opposed him turned on one another. The resulting war complicated a perennial drought and transformed it into full-scale famine that so far has killed 300,000 people. Hundreds continue to die daily, mostly in the more populous southern half, which includes Mogadishu and its surroundings.