U.N. votes to send U.S.-led military force to Somalia More than 30,000 troops will safeguard relief shipments CRISIS IN SOMALIA

December 04, 1992|By Mark Matthews and Richard H. P. Sia | Mark Matthews and Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The United Nations Security Council launched a relief mission of unprecedented dimensions last night, unanimously authorizing a U.S.-led military operation of more than 30,000 troops to ensure the safe delivery of food to starving Somalis.

With a ship carrying 1,800 Marines already off the Somali coast, the Pentagon readied additional Marine and Army contingents to move in the middle of next week to the anarchic, gang-plagued African nation to secure specific areas, roads and bridges for relief shipments.

Planning calls for a total U.S. force of 28,000. France announced it would send 1,700 to 2,000 troops, and several other nations tentatively pledged troops or some other form of support, U.S. officials said. Belgium, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kenya were reported to be offering troops, and Italy offered aid.

The operation is driven by the prospect that an additional 1.5 million Somalis could perish as warlords and armed gangs commandeer food supplies in a crumbling country with no government, a place where food, weapons and drugs are the main commodities. About 300,000 already have died.

Russian Ambassador Yuliy Vorontsov, in a statement to the Security Council, warned that by the end of this year there might no longer be a child under the age of 5 in Somalia.

This rarest of military operations -- a reaction to humanitarian catastrophe and not a threat to vital security interests -- marks a major turning point in the use of the U.S. military in the post-Cold War era.

Yet it is taking shape in an eerie political interregnum in the United States, with minimal public debate.

President Bush, preparing to leave office Jan. 20, has yet to make a major public statement on the situation, although officials expect him to speak publicly today after consulting with congressional leaders and then giving the formal go-ahead to military commanders.

His successor, Bill Clinton, issued a statement last night calling the U.N. resolution "an historic and welcome step" that "provided new hope" to millions of Somalis.

"I commend President Bush for taking the lead in this important humanitarian effort," he said. "I appreciate his keeping me informed of developments as he makes decisions regarding possible courses of action for the United States under this new Security Council resolution."

Mr. Bush presided yesterday over a National Security Council meeting where he was briefed on military plans, and he also called world leaders. On his list was King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. He spoke Wednesday with leaders of Japan, Canada and Britain, which is offering its Indian Ocean base on Diego Garcia.

After several days of negotiations-- a brisk pace for the United Nations -- the Security Council agreed on a resolution that satisfied the basic U.S. demand that a U.S. commander be placed in charge of the multinational operation. But it provided enough U.N. oversight to ease fears in the developing world of unchecked U.S. intervention on the African continent, which is still emerging from more than a century of European colonialism.

The Security Council agreed to determine, for instance, when the operation should be wrapped up and turned over to blue-helmeted peacekeepers under U.N. command.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater expressed the hope that the Somali relief mission could be secure enough for U.S. troops to withdraw by Jan. 20, allowing Mr. Bush to leave office with the mission accomplished and to avoid saddling Mr. Clinton with a messy conflict.

But neither U.S. nor allied officials expressed any certainty about achieving that goal. And key aspects of the mission remained unclear.

U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said Monday that troops would need to put Somalis' heavy weapons under international supervision and disarm irregular forces and gangs.

But planners hope the various gangs will, as French U.N. envoy )) Jean-Bernard Merimee put it, "take due note" of the incoming forces and "choose to cooperate" without having their weapons taken by force.

Edward Perkins, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, described the mission as "essentially peaceful," saying force would be endorsed "only when necessary."

"We are not looking to go in with guns blazing," said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams.

Rules governing U.S. forces haven't been released, but such cautionary statements are likely to trouble the U.S. military, particularly the Marines, still haunted by the restraints imposed in Beirut, Lebanon.

The final wording of the U.N. resolution authorizes member states to "use all necessary means to establish as soon as possible a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations Somalia."

While not mentioning the United States by name, it made clear that the United States is to lead a multinational force. But it also authorizes a Security Council panel to report on implementation of the resolution and tells the secretary-general himself to report in 15 days.

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