Key backer of Somalian warlord warns U.S. troops should not disarm fighters OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 06, 1992|By Jane Perlez | Jane Perlez,New York Times News Service

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Taking a tough stance on the eve of the arrival of U.S. troops, a key backer of the most powerful

Somalian warlord said yesterday that any disarming of fighters should be carried out by Somalian police and not by Americans.

The supporter, Osman Ato, who helped persuade the warlord, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, to accept U.S. intervention to prevent Somalian gunmen from blocking food shipments, said in an interview that he expected the U.S. military to consult with "institutions" of this famine-stricken country.

"Otherwise, you can be assured any wrong move will worsen the situation," said Mr. Ato, who has financed General Aideed and led the warlord's forces in some clan battles in Somalia this year. "We expect the Americans to behave as a friendly force, not as an occupation force."

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday in Washington that U.S. forces sent to Somalia on a mission to help about 1.5 million famine victims would be authorized to protect themselves and could use pre-emptive action in entering an area of Somalia if they expected to be attacked.

General Powell said Friday that the United States was considering the possibility of buying up arms from Somalian gunmen. But U.S. military officials have generally skirted the wider issue of disarming the gunmen who have terrorized this African nation the past two years.

A contingent of 1,800 Marines is expected to land on the shores of this Indian Ocean city early this week to secure the airport and port. Soon afterward, U.S. supplies for an expected force of more than 28,000 troops will be unloaded from ships, the Pentagon said.

Flights bringing the first wave of U.S. Marines will land later in the week, and an Army light division from Fort Drum, N.Y., is expected later, Pentagon officials have said.

Mr. Ato's warning to the United States came as aid workers failed on a last-ditch effort yesterday to move United Nations food out of the port and clear it a little before the U.S. forces arrive.

The botched delivery illustrated more than ever, many of the workers said, why military strength was needed to salvage the collapsed U.N. famine operation in Somalia.

The port, the main gateway for food, has been closed since Nov. 11 because of disagreements between the north and the south of the city, which is divided along clan lines. When a U.N. ship tried to enter 10 days ago, forces led by the warlord Ali Mahdi Mohamed shelled it.

What kind of resistance U.S. troops could encounter from the ragtag gunmen in the capital continues to be a guessing game.

Mogadishu, particularly the south side, is awash in arms of all kinds. Empty bullet casings litter the sandy track outside Mr. Ato's house, and almost every car carries gunmen in the back seat, on the roof or in the trunk. Most aid workers travel with backup "technicals," or jeeps filled with gunmen hired to protect aid workers if they get into trouble.

Many of those vehicles were seen leaving town yesterday. But many Somalis said they suspected that the gunmen would put their guns away or retreat to the bush, and then revert to business-as-usual once the Americans left.

Mr. Ato said yesterday that he expected the Americans to brief him and General Aideed in advance of the landing so that they could instruct fighters through posters and the radio that the relief effort was a goodwill mission and that their fighters should not try to shoot.

"I don't think the Americans will be shot at, and I hope they don't shoot at the people," Mr. Ato said. "We hope the Somalis will do their part in giving a lending hand to the incoming forces."

Exactly how General Aideed expected his men to help the Americans was not clear.

"We will keep some men on standby just to assist to contain any incidents," in which gunmen do not obey General Aideed's instructions to behave, he said.

One experienced aid worker estimated that 50,000 "paramilitary" men live on the south side of Mogadishu. But not all are active fighters, they are not unified in big blocs, and they tend to shift allegiances according to opportunities for looting, said the worker, a former military officer.

General Aideed has been reported in the past to have about 5,000 men he can readily call to action. But his control over his men has weakened in recent months, so that number may now be lower, aid workers who have watched his forces say.

In what might be a propitious sign for the Americans, business was slowing yesterday at the city's gun market, where vendors in open-air stalls hawk bullets, rifles, pistols and rocket-propelled grenades. The price of the most popular weapon, the AK-47 assault rifle, had dropped from the equivalent of about $100 to $20 in the last three days, Somalis said.

"People are asking why didn't the Americans come earlier," said Abdul Gadir Sidi, a language teacher. "Why are they coming when it's too late? But even so, 90 percent of the people want them to come, and it's a good sign the value of weapons is down."

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