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U.S. Marines Fire on Somali Crowd, Reportedly Killing 3

By Keith B. Richburg
The Washington Post

NAIROBI

U.S. Marines escorting two American diplomats in Mogadishu fired on a crowd of Somalis Monday, reportedly killing three, in one of the capital's most congested neighborhoods. The Marines said they attacked after coming under sniper fire, an allegation disputed by witnesses.

No U.S. servicemen or diplomats were injured, but foreign journalists and Somali witnesses reported at least three Somalis died. Some news agency reports said local hospitals reported five people killed and as many as 15 injured.

The clash was another sign that the security situation in Somalia may be unraveling as the United States accelerates its military retreat. It was the worst confrontation between American troops and Somalis since the start of a cease-fire last October.

The Mogadishu incident came three days after gunmen in the central Somali town of Beledweyne looted 337 tons of food from a World Food Program warehouse, forcing the temporary evacuation of some relief workers from that troubled city and raising the prospect of more bloodshed and anarchy after the withdrawal of American and European troops from Somalia is complete in March.

As is typical in incidents involving U.S. and U.N. troops and Somalis, various witnesses offered conflicting versions of the event. Somalis insisted to reporters on the scene that no sniper shots were fired at the American vehicles, and that the Marines fired the only rounds.

U.S. diplomats in Somalia said the gunfire erupted about 11 a.m. as 22 Marines in three Humvees were escorting two American diplomatic cars from a meeting with representatives of Somali militia leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The meeting had been held to discuss deteriorating security in the part of the city where Monday's incident occurred.

According to Steve McIlvaine, the deputy chief of the U.S. liaison office, which functions as the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu, the convoy was fired on by at least two gunmen as the Americans approached a strategic traffic circle known as Kilometer Four, site of a hotel housing foreign news reporters. McIlvaine said in a statement released here that the Marines returned fire and believed they hit two attacking gunmen.

Reporters on the scene said the shooting occurred on a street where hundreds of Somalis were gathered for free food distribution. Some Somalis told the Associated Press in Mogadishu that they heard no sniper shots, but said the Marines saw the large crowd and must have felt threatened.

The commander of a contingent of Bangladeshi troops stationed on a nearby rooftop also told the news agency that he neither heard initial sniper shots nor saw snipers. But journalists in the nearby hotel said they heard what sounded like one or two single shots before the Marines fired a barrage from their M-16 automatic rifles.

Witnesses described seeing a man and a woman lying dead in a pool of blood, shot in the head and neck, and another man lying dead against a wall with an arm blown off. After the shooting, Somalis carried the dead and wounded away on wheelbarrows angrily shouting anti-American slogans.

American diplomats did not formally assign blame for the incident. But a U.S. official who asked not to be further identified said Aidid's organization, the Somali National Alliance, had to take responsibility for getting gunmen off the streets in the areas of the city under its control if it wanted to be taken seriously as a responsible organization.

The United States and Aidid fought an undeclared, four-month guerrilla battle in Mogadishu's streets that ended on Oct. 3-4 when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in a raid meant to arrest some of Aidid's top aides.

Only about 5,000 American troops remain in Somalia, and almost all of them will be moved to Mogadishu's port and airport by mid-February to await flights and ships out. by late March, no American servicemen will be left in Somalia.

The Americans' departure has led Italian, French, Greek, Norwegian, German and Turkish troops also to withdraw. Many Somalis, foreign relief workers and U.N. diplomats have voiced fears that the country could be poised for a new outbreak of violence and bloodshed that the ill-equipped U.N. troops remaining, all from Third World countries, may not be able to contain.