Bungled Military Actions Tarnish US Image Among Wary Somalis

THE conflict in Somalia has changed in the last four months, as US-led UN troops hunt for Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed.

Somali sources close to General Aideed's armed supporters say each new United Nations casualty and successful mortar or grenade attack on UN bases in Mogadishu has given hope to Aideed that his militia will prevail.

As the streets and skies become more unsafe for UN troops and helicopters, the US-led troops have turned to new tactics, trading mortar for mortar with Somalis, even in populated areas. Mortars are the least accurate form of artillery, and UN officials privately say such tactics would never be permitted in a more ``regular war.''

Underscoring how far the UN mission in Somalia has changed from a popular humanitarian effort into a despised military action, many Somalis accuse the US-led UN forces in Somalia of behaving like a new warlord in the country. Some 69 UN troops have been killed and more than 200 wounded. Six Americans were missing after an Oct. 3-4 raid against Aideed, but the warlord's aides said they only held one hostage.

Two high-profile, bungled attempts to nab the fugitive warlord Aideed illustrate why Somalis feel that the US troops do not understand the situation. The troops have shown little finesse during military operations and have proven to Somalis that they fall for poor intelligence fed to them by Somali ``informers'' and paid for by the UN.

In the first raid, in August, US commandos snaked down ropes from helicopters and blasted through a UN compound with grenades. Their ``intelligence'' showed that it was a command center for Aideed. Four UN and relief workers were roughed up, along with five Somali guards.

In the second raid, in mid-September, the elite US forces showed a sheer misunderstanding of clan politics. They raided the house of a former police chief and mayor - who is co-chairman of the UN's own police committee - in northern Mogadishu. It was the last place on earth where Aideed would seek refuge, Somalis say, because it is controlled by a rival clan. Mistaking the former mayor for Aideed, the elite forces bundled him off, then later apologized to the entire clan.

``The first raid was a mistake,'' one US official says. ``The second was just plain stupid.''

Somali gunmen laughed at the display of American ineptitude, and have since stepped up their attacks on UN and American targets.

Somalis question whether US and UN commanders are held accountable for their operations. They point to the killing of more than 100 Somalis on Sept. 9, when American helicopters opened fire on a crowd of women, children, and gunmen in order to save the lives of Pakistani UN troops riding in vehicles and besieged by a crowd.

US Army Maj. David Stockwell, a senior UN spokesman here, changed the official version of the events three times. First, it was ``regrettable'' that women and children were caught in the fighting. Then ``it is not regrettable,'' because - according to UN rules of engagement - the women and children were considered ``combatants from the moment they began to swarm the vehicles, meaning to do our soldiers harm.''

In the final version, the women and children were combatants because they were in the area, some of them hurling grenades and firing on the soldiers. These were targeted by the helicopters because ``there are no sidelines'' in anti-UN attacks and everyone in range is a ``combatant.''

In the effort to capture Aideed, the US-led troops have turned to tactics that endanger civilians. Somali gunmen mobilize mortar positions quickly by taxi. They launch a round, and then drive off to a new position, according to a UN source here. In response, US mortar teams in fortified UN compounds fire back - based on coordinates deduced by the incoming round - often into heavily populated areas from which the Somali mortar group had long since driven away.

A hospital targeted two weeks ago by the UN was ``a fair target'' because of a mortar position nearby, Major Stockwell said. Last week a family of eight was killed by a UN mortar round.

President Clinton insisted Monday that all hostages must be treated according to rules laid down by the International Committee of the Red Cross or the captors would risk heavy retaliation. But UN officials, Somalis say, have refused to allow the ICRC to visit Aideed's chief aide, Osman Ato, who was picked up two weeks ago and is currently being interrogated by the UN.

``They are getting away with murder in Somalia,'' says a Somali relief worker. ``Who are [the UN troops] accountable to, and who can we, as Somalis, complain to about this?''

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