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Somali Clan Fighting Erupts, Undermining Peace Talks

By John Lancaster
The Washington Post

MOGADISHU, Somalia

Somalia's worst inter-clan fighting in seven months erupted here Monday, undercutting U.N.-sponsored peace talks and posing a fresh challenge to the growing U.S. combat presence in the city.

Mogadishu reverberated with sporadic small arms and heavy-machine-gun fire and the ear-splitting bang of rocket-propelled grenades. The fighting, which involved four separate clashes, continued this evening. It was the first major breach in Mogadishu of an unsteady truce arranged last March in a reconciliation agreement among Somalia's clan militias.

The violence began Monday morning when the militia of Mohamed Farrah Aidid clashed with that of his archrival, Mohamed Ali Mahdi, along the front between them that divides the city. Several thousand of Mahdi's Abgal subclan had assembled in the territory of Aideed's Habr Gedir subclan for a "peace march" -- a move Aidid denounced as provocative.

By early afternoon, fighting had spread to three other areas, including the Medina neighborhood, near the main U.N. compound, and the area around a key traffic circle, known as K-4. Reporters witnessed three explosions from the roof of their hotel in the vicinity of the circle.

United Nations combat troops and their American partners did not intervene in the fighting and a U.N. military spokesman said late Monday afternoon that the emphasis was still on "political dialogue." American Cobra attack helicopters circled above this morning's fighting at a safe altitude.

By Monday afternoon, however, the helicopters were more active, chugging low over the traffic circle and at one point dropping a yellow smoke grenade in an apparent effort to mark a Somali gun position just behind the journalists' hotel. Around 4 p.m., one of the pilots reported seeing small arms and a rocket-propelled grenade fired at his helicopter, according to the U.N. military spokesman here, New Zealand army Capt. Tim McDavitt.

Although the helicopters never fired, their aggressive posture was striking after several weeks in which U.S. forces have pulled back from offensive operations following the deaths of 18 American servicemen on Oct. 3 and 4. U.S. military officers have said they fear that if factional fighting spins out of control, their troops could once more be forced to take sides, jeopardizing diplomatic efforts to reconcile rival subclans and spawning a new cycle of violence.

No accurate casualty figures were available Monday, in part because Western reporters were trapped in their hotel by the fighting and could not visit local hospitals. McDavitt said he knew of 45 wounded Somalis taken to two U.N. hospitals and a charity clinic.

The broad political significance of the renewed fighting was "difficult to categorize," said McDavitt, who was interviewed by journalists via satellite telephone from the U.N. compound two miles away. Some of the violence appeared to be opportunistic, as thugs took advantage of the chaos to loot property and settle scores. But most of the fighting appeared to involve supporters of Mahdi and Aidid, the two main contenders for control of the capital.

"There's the use of small arms and heavy-machine-gun fire but at times it appears quite sporadic," said McDavitt. "In terms of an effect on a cease-fire between the two clans, it's really just a matter of wait and see."

For the last several days, the senior U.N. envoy here, retired U.S. admiral Jonathan Howe, had worked frantically to head off the peace march, which grew out of a U.N.-sponsored peace conference earlier this month in north Mogadishu that Aideed had boycotted. Spokesmen for Aidid's political organization, the Somali National Alliance, had warned that Mahdi supporters who crossed the so-called "green line" into Aidid's stronghold, south Mogadishu, could meet armed resistance.

Once in south Mogadishu, the marchers were supposed to assemble at an amphitheater in an area of derelict government buildings and cultural sites near Mogadishu's port. It was unclear how many marchers turned out, although TV crews who ventured into the neighborhood brought back footage of several hundred and possibly more gathering in a plaza above the amphitheater.

Aidid supporters Monday morning set up roadblocks along the green line and took up firing positions behind walls and in the upper floors of empty buildings. The shooting began even before the rally was to begin at 9 a.m., scattering the crowd and killing at least one Somali, according to Judy Keen, a reporter for USA Today who witnessed the episode from a Pakistani peacekeeping post adjacent to the amphitheater. Video footage showed Aideed fighters firing rocket-propelled grenades at Mahdi positions across the green line.

Despite the sometimes intense gunfire, Somalis in the area appeared to pay little attention so long as the fire was not directed at them. Even as reporters cowered in their hotel's hallways, wearing helmets and body armor, a tea shop across the street was open for business.