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U.S. Envoy Tells Somalia's Warlords Not to Interfere

By Keith B. Richburg
The Washington Post

MOGADISHU, Somalia

A U.S. envoy warned Somalia's feuding warlords Monday to keep their guns way from Mogadishu's port and international airport when U.S. forces disembark at dawn Wednesday to restore order in this hungry and long-suffering city.

Robert Oakley, a former ambassador here now serving as the military special envoy for the Somalia operation, held a closed-door meeting with relief agencies at the U.N. compound here, and afterwards told reporters that American forces are coming to save starving people and not to do battle with Somalia's warlords.

"We hope it will remain a humanitarian operation all the way through, because the purpose is to protect deliveries of relief supplies, relief workers and relief recipients," Oakley said in remarks quoted by the Associated Press.

Sources familiar with Oakley's private meeting with relief groups said the envoy outlined plans for the initial stages of the military operation, which is expected to begin early Wednesday morning local time (late Tuesday night EST) with a landing by some of the 1,800 Marines now on three amphibious assault ships offshore. About 28,000 U.S. troops are slated to arrive in Somalia over the next five weeks and White House officials say they hope to begin withdrawing them soon afterwards.

The imminent arrival of U.S. forces here was heralded Monday by two Navy F-14s streaking over the city at an altitude of about 1,000 feet, prompting cheers from Somalis who ran outside their homes to watch. The aircraft were dispatched from the carrier USS Ranger to take pictures of Somali military forces in the city and also as a message to would-be challengers, according to Pentagon officials in Washington.

The Marines' initial task will be to secure Mogadishu's port and airport, both of which then will then need major engineering improvements before troops and equipment can begin arriving in bulk from the United States, Washington Post staff writer John Lancaster reported in Washington. Senior Navy officials said most of the construction work will be done by 1,240 Navy Seabee combat engineers who will arrive along with 550 pieces of heavy equipment over the next four weeks.

The Navy already has flown nine Seabees to Mogadishu with orders to fix the airport runway lights so flights can begin into the country on a 24-hour basis, the officials said.

Relief agency officials who attended Oakley's briefing said the envoy warned them not to approach the port or airport with armed security guards once the American forces land. They said Oakley also intends to pass that same message later this evening in meetings with the two major warlords, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, and Mohamed Farah Aideed.

In Washington, a senior official said Oakley's job will be both to inform the warring leaders of what the U.S. forces intend to do and how, and also to offer reassurances that the United States does not intend to try to impose a political solution on the African nation.

Oakley was leading a team of U.S. officials from the State and Defense departments, including Brig. Gen. Frank Libutti, who has been commanding U.S. humanitarian airlift operations into Somalia, Pentagon and White House officials said.

One source who attended the briefing said Oakley did not intend to enter into negotiations with the two warlords, but rather would be informing them of American military intentions and advising them to withdraw all their gunmen from the port and airport to avoid possible hostilities. He said the United States would give the warlords a deadline to withdraw their gunmen before U.S. forces arrived, and that any armed men seen at the sites after the deadline would be considered hostile.

In the initial phase, the U.S. forces will follow rules of engagement allowing them to fire on any hostile forces in self-defense, said the sources who attended Oakley's briefing.

The envoy's blunt message appears to mark a tough, no-nonsense approach aimed at breaking the current cycle of extortion in which relief groups and even U.S. peace-keepers in Somalia have become veritable hostages to armed thugs selling "protection" and demanding a cut of relief aid.

When a contingent of 550 Pakistani peace-keeping troops came here in September under a U.N. mandate to secure the city's port and airport, the Pakistani group's leader quickly became involved in constant negotiation with Somalia's armed militias over how they would be deployed and over how many Somali gunmen would be put on the U.N. payroll to help "protect" the Pakistanis. After initially negotiating for several hundred Somali helpers, the United Nations has ended up bankrolling close to 2,000 armed thugs, and the Pakistanis have still not been deployed at the port, over two months after their arrival.

When the Bush administration announced 10 days ago that it was willing to send up to 30,000 U.S. combat troops here to protect and deliver food aid, Somalia's main clan leaders saw it as another opportunity to negotiate for jobs and cash for their militiamen. But the Americans appear to be signaling early on that they will launch the U.S. intervention with an immediate show of force and a tough no-weapons policy in the areas under U.S. control.

Several aid group officials and some Somalis had been complaining before Monday that the U.S. military had not consulted them about their intention. Some were concerned about the status of their own gunmen and security guards, which have become a necessity for a short trip around this violent capital.