THE military cleanup of Somalia's vast array of weapons is under way, and has given hope to Somalis that peace might soon replace two years of internecine fighting.
One month after the first United States Marines stormed ashore to protect relief food from looters, they and forces from 20 nations - working under a United Nations Security Council mandate - have begun patrolling aggressively to rid the country of weapons. But there are concerns here over the UN's ability to assume control in the Marines' absence.
Roughly 900 US Marines yesterday swept through Mogadishu's Bekara market, hunting for guns and arms caches hidden by Somali gunmen and their controlling warlords. In one dusty building, following a tip by a Somali man in the crowd, a company of Marines broke in and discovered hundreds of shells and rounds of all sizes, a two-barrelled anti-aircraft gun with extra barrels, and boxes of British-made hand grenades.
"Singularly, it's not much," said Marine Maj. Gen. Charles Wilhelm, in charge of the Marine contingent of the 20,000 American forces in Somalia. "But if we keep finding what we are finding, together it is significant."
In their biggest raid, 400 Marines Friday took control of Mogadishu's best-stocked gun market, confiscating tanks, armored personnel carriers, and rocket launchers and mortars.
As yesterday's raid was under way, Somali warlords announced agreement on a cease-fire and to start disarming their militias.
In their statement, leaders of 15 factions concluding a week of talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, agreed on an agenda for national reconciliation talks starting in Addis Ababa on March 15. The statement said the cease-fire and the disarming of militias would start immediately and be monitored by a committee of factional representatives and UN military observers.
According to Reuters, the Somali leaders also agreed that:
* Militias will set up camps outside major towns, and will be disarmed no later than March 1.
* All armed civilians are to register weapons for disarmament in conjuction with the formation of a provisional government.
* All prisoners of war will be handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross and all property unlawfully taken during the fighting will be returned to the lawful owners.
The agenda for the March 15 conference includes the drawing up of a national charter and the establishment of a transitional government, conference observers told Reuters.
But the delegates to the talks have repeatedly said the clan warlords do not have firm control over their fighters and doubt such a sweeping accord can be implemented.
As American forces talk of sending their first wave of troops home, expecially Marine combat units, UN officials and relief agencies express concern that UN forces alone may not have enough clout among Somalis to keep the peace.
The multinational forces have secured the port, airport, and US Embassy in Mogadishu. They have also gained control of seven key famine-stricken towns in southern Somalia, which are to be used as hubs to distribute relief food. According to Marine spokesman Col. Fred Peck, roughly 30,000 tons of relief food have so far been unloaded in the port - enough to feed the 2 million Somalis most at risk of starvation for a month.
But as the UN prepares to take over, probably in the next month, it faces a serious credibility problem among Somalis. Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, who controls much of the capital and southern Somalia, has waged a campaign against the UN for months. In areas under his control, the US troops have been applauded while the UN has been accused of neo-colonialism.
The US troops, always flying their own flag despite the UN mandate, may be partly to blame. "The Americans could have given the UN a lot more credibility, and made a transition to UN authority much smoother if they had rolled in here flying UN flags as well," said the head of one relief agency. "Unless an American force of 5,000 is left behind, the UN can't do the job."