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More Attacks Raise Concern About Presence in Somalia

By Art Pine
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

U.N. peacekeeping forces and American helicopters clashed with a crowd of Somalis on Thursday in a battle that killed substantial numbers of women and children, U.S. and U.N. officials said, raising new concerns here about the U.S. presence in Somalia.

The carnage came after scores of Somali gunmen, shielded by women and children -- many of them apparently armed -- attacked some 135 U.S. and Pakistani peacekeeping troops, killing a Pakistani soldier and wounding five Pakistanis and three U.S. soldiers.

The U.N. troops then called in American Cobra helicopter gunships, which fired 20 mm cannon into the crowd to prevent it from overrunning the troops, U.N. officials said.

U.S. Army Maj. David Stockwell, the U.N. spokesman in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, said the gunships fired as a "last resort" to keep the U.N. troops from being attacked by the mob, as they have been in previous clashes. The gunmen hidden in the center of such crowds usually are heavily armed.

The actual number of Somali casualties was not immediately clear. U.N. officials conceded that civilian casualties were high.

The incident seems certain to add to growing concern in the United States about the tenor of the U.N. and U.S. peacekeeping mission in Somalia and appears to heighten the emotional element in the debate, prompting members of Congress to recall memories of the Vietnam War, where the distinction between enemy forces and civilians often was blurred, and the October 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon.

The violence also may hold implications for possible U.S. involvement in Bosnia.

On Thursday, Congress launched its first formal attack on the Clinton administration's policy in Somalia as the Senate passed a resolution demanding that President Clinton present a detailed plan for continued U.S. peacekeeping efforts and later seek Congress' approval.

The bipartisan measure, based on a stronger proposal by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., calls on the president to unveil his medium-term "game plan" by Oct. 15, and to seek Congress' blessing formally 30 days later. Passage came on a vote of 90-7.

Lawmakers have become dissatisfied with U.S. policy in Somalia because the nature of the peacekeeping operation there has changed. U.N. forces took over from U.S. commanders last May and the effort has turned into a test of wills between the U.N. and fugitive warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid.

In all, eight U.S. soldiers have been killed in action in Somalia since U.S. forces arrived last December, while 61 -- including the three hurt Thursday -- have been wounded. The fighting there has become more intense as Aidid has rallied his militia.