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U.S. Troops May Go to Somalia to Protect U.N. Peacekeepers

By Julia Preston
The Washington Post

The United States may send American combat troops back into Somalia to protect U.N. peacekeeping forces as they withdraw from the increasingly chaotic country, U.S. and U.N. officials said Thursday.

Behind the planning under way at the United Nations for a withdrawal of the 18,900 U.N. troops in Somalia is an anguished recognition that the mission, started in April 1992, has failed to bring peace among feuding clans or re-establish even a rudimentary government.

U.N. officials said they asked for U.S. help because they fear attacks on the departing peacekeepers by Somali militias, and believe millions of dollars' worth of U.N. weapons and equipment could be looted or stolen.

The United Nations has formally asked the United States for military aircraft and vessels to help carry its troops away from Somalia, officials from both sides said. Top U.N. peacekeeping officials also are seeking U.S. provision of a quick-reaction force of combat troops to be stationed off the shore of Somalia, ready to aid U.N. troops if they come under fire.

The United States has reached no decision on the requests, U.S. officials said. U.S. military planners recognize that the United Nations will need assistance to leave Somalia quickly. But the Clinton administration has not forgotten that 18 American servicemen were killed in the streets of Mogadishu in October 1993. That incident forced the administration to abruptly initiate a pullout of U.S. troops from Somalia that was completed in March.

Administration officials are also reluctant to commit U.S. forces to rescue a failing U.N. mission in Somalia when they are relying on the authority of the United Nations, and eventually on the help of U.N. peacekeepers, to carry out the impending invasion of Haiti.

The United States would like to see the Somalia mission closed down by the end of this year, U.S. officials said. The Security Council is scheduled to review the mandate for the mission by Sept. 30.

In a meeting Thursday morning with the five non-aligned nations on the council, U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright argued that because Somali leaders have made no progress toward a settlement, the mission is not producing results that justify the huge international commitment, U.S. officials said. The operation costs about $1 billion a year, of which the United States pays about one-third.

"We just don't see the evidence it's doing any good anymore," a U.S. official said. "The burden of proof is on the United Nations to show why it should continue into next year."

But U.N. officials, who have also sought assistance in the Somali withdrawal from France, Britain, India and Pakistan, have warned that this will be the most dangerous retreat U.N. peacekeepers have ever undertaken.

"There will be no safe withdrawal," a top U.N. official in the Somalia operation said. "We can't negotiate a peaceful exit with the Somalis because we have no one to talk to. The last 10,000 of our troops will be tremendously endangered."

Repeated efforts by U.S. and U.N. officials over the past year to persuade Somali clan leader Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid to make peace with 12 other faction leaders have failed. Territorial battles rage in several areas, and attacks on the United Nations have increased.

Because of the risks, the United States Thursday finished closing down its Somali embassy, in the heart of the Aidid-controlled southern neighborhoods of Mogadishu. U.S. Ambassador Daniel Simpson and the last of about 80 U.S. diplomatic employees were expected to leave Mogadishu Thursday.

On Aug. 22 Somali gunmen killed seven Indian peacekeepers and wounded nine in a looting assault on a relief convoy they were escorting. In another attack last month, Aidid's militiamen seized the town of Beledweyne, stole the uniforms, weapons and vehicles of the Zimbabwean U.N. troops there and used the arms to storm and take over a neighboring town.