US Marines Boost Confidence Of Somalis, Relief Workers

Peace is still distant, but onlookers relish the calm as looters' guns are stowed

AS battle-ready US marines piled out of helicopters Wednesday at the beach-front airport here, they were greeted not by enemy fire, but by several thousand happy Somalis - along with hundreds of Western photographers and journalists.

"I'm very glad the Americans are coming to our land," said 18-year-old Mohamed Sherk, standing on the beach. "We were hoping for them for a long time. They will give us peace and save the people."

That is a tall order, even for the 30,000 or so troops, mostly from the US, who will follow the 1,800 Marines already here or off shore to try to halt the armed looting of relief food, a practice that has contributed to so much suffering and death over the past two years.

But as challenging as Operation Restore Hope is, it is at least off to a good start.

"The operation has gone extremely well so far," said Marine Maj. Gen. Frank Libutti, in a brief airport interview.

Both Mogadishu's airport and port are now in the hands of US troops and, for the first time in two years, out of the hands of armed Somali factions who often have blocked relief food from getting to the starving. The arguments among factional leaders and relief workers usually centered on which clan of their choice would get the food, while relief officials argued for distribution on the basis of need.

Here and elsewhere in the famine areas of Somalia, armed looters sometimes have stolen whole convoys of food to sell. But the Marines' arrival has boosted the confidence of relief workers in Mogadishu.

Tomorrow, CARE plans to send a convoy of 50 tons of wheat in 10 trucks to distribution points in Mogadishu, under Marine guard. It will be the first time in nearly two years that a relief agency, instead of politically minded Somali faction leaders, have chosen who gets food.

A United Nations World Food Programme ship of relief food is expected in the port tomorrow.

"I think the mass looting has come to an end," says Rick Grant, head of the CARE program here.

In anticipation of the Marines' arrival and their expected sweep for arms here and in other parts of the country, the price of guns has dropped by a third, as Somali gunmen unload them on the market, says Mr. Grant.

Such sales do not mean the guns are not around anymore. Where there is a seller of guns, there is usually a buyer. But it does mean fewer guns are visible on the streets.

For the first time in the two years this correspondent has been coming to Somalia, the streets of Mogadishu are practically barren of guns. Grant says many Somalis have probably hidden their guns "in closets, under beds, in the dirt."

A number of Somalis interviewed said they knew where some weapons had been buried and would be happy to help the Marines find them.

For the moment, absent any shooting of Somalis by Marines, the US troops are heroes in the eyes of most people here.

"It's a strange sight," said William Sears, a marine from Coronado, Calif., "we aren't sure what to expect."

Gunnery Sgt. Frankin Reid, from Richmond, Texas, had a hand on his pistol, but said: "I've been in quite a few landings. I've never seen one like this. Everybody has been waving at me and smiling."

A few yards away, a massive crowd of curious Somalis watched another air-cushioned landing craft hit the beach, unloading trucks and other heavy equipment. Children, women, and men, standing in the sand and crammed in thick rows along the top of beach-front dunes, took in every detail.

For many, the arrival of the troops is the beginning of a dream of peace after two years of factional fighting that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Rebels overthrew dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in January 1991, then fell to fighting among themselves.

"I am greedy for peace," said Farhan Osman Hassan. "I am one of the victims of the war," he added, showing a hand with a missing finger.

A few minutes later, on the other side of the airport runway, Hussein Iman Farah, standing on crutches, explained he was hit by a bullet in 1991, while walking to visit relatives in this city. He was caught in cross-fire between rival clans, a common event here.

Wearing a T-shirt reading "I am the boss," he says he hopes to complete his education, become a businessman, and own a shopping center.

A young Somali woman who lost two brothers, killed in mortar shelling in December 1991, paused as she was leaving the beach Wednesday. She was in secondary school until fighting closed it. If peace is restored she would like to continue her studies and go to college.

But peace is a long way off, with rival clan leaders far from agreement on anything. If the Marines stay until peace comes to this troubled land, Lance Corporal Larry Fowler of Stark, Fla., and Corporal David Marts of Chicago Ridge, Ill., who were using a large, empty shipping container as a temporary resting place on Wednesday, might be here for a long time.

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