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U.N. Officials Misjudged Size of Aidid Militia, Armaments

By Keith B. Richburg
The Washington Post

NAIROBI, Kenya

As two more American soldiers died from fighting in Somalia, senior U.S. and U.N. officials in Mogadishu acknowledged Thursday that they may have vastly underestimated the size of Mohamed Farrah Aidid's militia and the amount of heavy weapons at his disposal.

An Army Ranger was killed in a mortar attack against the Rangers' encampment at Mogadishu's airport Wednesday night, U.S. spokesmen said Thursday, and 12 other U.S. soldiers were wounded, four of them seriously enough to require evacuation to Germany. Two mortar rounds were fired into the airport from about a mile away, officials said.

Meanwhile, an American soldier wounded in Sunday's fierce battle between U.S. troops and Somali gunmen died Thursday at an army hospital in Germany, raising the American death toll from that clash to at least 13. Five other soldiers were believed missing, and one soldier was being held prisoner.

The size and ferocity of the latest Somali attacks have prompted U.S. and U.N. officials to reconsider their estimates about the size of Aidid's force, the depth of his support among the civilian population and the amount and caliber of weapons in the warlord's arsenal.

"It may be that our estimates may have been low," retired U.S. Adm. Jonathan T. Howe, the chief U.N. envoy in Somalia, said in a telephone interview Thursday. "Recently, I think we have seen he's using more people. He certainly has brought more guns and heavy weaponry into the equation."

A top U.N. official said authorities believe Aidid has been receiving new shipments of large-caliber weapons that have been arriving in Mogadishu overland from Ethiopia. Authorities also believe Aidid has been recruiting more fighters from his home base in Somalia's central region.

The official said the United Nations so far has been unable to stem the arms flow into Mogadishu, despite the presence of more than 28,000 U.N. troops in the country and a major disarmament campaign that was supposed to have stripped Aidid of most of his heavy weapons. The new weapons coming into the city include recoilless rifles such as the kind used to destroy a Pakistani tank in an ambush on Sept. 9.

"There's more stuff that's come in over time," the official said. "There's some weak points in our network. Like the recoilless rifles; we hadn't seen those before."

French military officials, who are responsible for controlling the area from the Ethiopian border through the town of Baidoa and into Mogadishu, said in interviews last month in Baidoa that they were aware that fresh arms shipments were moving through French-controlled territory toward the capital.

But with only 3,000 troops from France, Morocco, Zimbabwe and Botswana trying to secure a vast chunk of territory, the French commanders said all they can manage to do is police the main highways. "We can't control the camel roads," said Capt. Phillipe Banse, a French army officer in Baidoa.

In addition to Aidid's ability to get new weapons into Mogadishu, U.S. and U.N. officials also acknowledged that the size of his militia may be much larger than the 200 to 300 that they first estimated.

U.S. officials also said they have been surprised by Aidid's ability and willingness to commit large numbers of his gunmen to battles and by the tenacity of his guerrillas, who stand their ground and fight even when facing the technologically superior U.N. forces.

In June, when American AC-130 Spectre gunships first demolished Aidid's command headquarters in Mogadishu and sent the warlord underground as a fugitive, American and U.N. officials were predicting confidently that Aidid's support was minimal. Those U.S. gunships were also supposed to have destroyed all of Aidid's weapons depots in the city, stripping him of his heavy weapons.

Officials acknowledge now that Aidid and his militia probably had a lot more hidden stockpiles around the city than they had initially believed.

The bloodshed from Sunday's attack, which began when two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down over Aidid's stronghold in the Bakara market area of Mogadishu, also has prompted U.S. officials to reconsider the tactic that had been considered the best way to arrest Aidid in a hostile urban setting: Army Rangers rapelling down ropes from helicopters for a quick grab.

"Anytime you suffer losses, you re-evaluate your tactics," Howe said. "A helicopter, when you put it down in the midst of heavy RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) fire, is not totally invulnerable."

One Black Hawk pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Michael J. Durant, was being held hostage by Aidid's militia following Sunday's battle, and an estimated five U.S. soldiers were missing in action.