French legionnaires kill 2 Somalis Seven others hurt after truck tries to crash through weapons checkpoint OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 11, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The French Foreign Legion drew th first blood of Operation Restore Hope yesterday in a confrontation that left two Somalis dead.

A truck carrying Somalian gunmen tried crashing through a checkpoint manned by French legionnaires. The legionnaires opened fire. The truck slammed into a concrete wall. Between the shooting and the wall, two Somalis were dead and seven injured.

The French say the Somalis fired first.

"If the dead men were gunmen, it is good for Somalia," student Hassan Aden told Reuters. "But if they were not gunmen, this is an evil foreign action."

The French have not been gentle with the locals who come to gape and smile at them, as they had at the Marines after the U.S. force came ashore Wednesday.

The legionnaires do not smile back; they are brusque, all business. Most of them are not French; they are professional soldiers from many countries commanded by French officers. They have not come to befriend the Somalis but to provide the security for which the overwhelming majority of the people here have been waiting.

The legionnaires who are here from nearby Djibouti picked the biggest puddle in this mud-splashed capital to establish the roadblock on the city's wide main street in what appeared to be the first systematic search for weapons since the launch of the resume mission to Somalia.

Headquartered in the gutted bar Las Vegas at the Kilometer 4 traffic circle in the center of town, the legionnaires ran searches of the occasional car or truck and of houses in one neighborhood where gunshots were heard.

They created possibly the largest and wettest traffic jam Mogadishu has ever seen. According to one report, vehicles at one time were backed up for a quarter-mile.

They also annoyed a lot of Somalis.

Marines also were in the streets, but in fewer numbers, mainly to support the French. A Marine colonel said, "We're starting to make our presence known out and around the city."

After shots were fired from a mansion owned by a backer of warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, the Marines entered the building and found a large arms cache -- a recoilless rifle, heavy machine guns, 40,000 rounds of ammunition. They did not remove anything but tried to make their displeasure known.

Marine tanks the color of sand ground their way here and there through the muddy street. The heavy sound of helicopter engines already has become a part of the city's background noise.

But most of the Marines remained confined to the port and at their initial landing area near Mogadishu International Airport. A growing sense of impatience seemed to be developing, and questions were raised why they had not yet secured the western towns of Baidoa and Bardera in the heart of the "hunger zone."

Meanwhile, the overall relief effort gathered pace. Paul Mitchell -- the spokesman here of the World Food Program (WFP), the source of all the relief food coming into Somalia -- said the ship Milos L would soon be back in Somalian waters, loaded with maize.

The Milos L took two hits from renegade shore batteries off Mogadishu on Nov. 24. It was turned back to Kenya and might have been the incident that triggered President Bush's decision to launch Operation Restore Hope.

Food ships have been fired on before, and every time it happens it sets back progress in the fight against Somalia's famine.

This progress has been considerable since the end of summer, the worse period of this cataclysm, when it was thought more than 1,000 people a day were dying. Today, the capital city of Mogadishu has enough food for its people. Some 8,000 to 9,000 tons are stacked in port warehouses -- food that could not be safely delivered, even through the capital, until now.

But starvation is still raging in parts of the countryside.

The return of the Milos L will have a positive psychological impact on the people involved with relief work here. It will assure them that from now on food will not be impeded from coming into the country.

Getting it out into the hinterland, that's the next big step.

The first convoy protected by U.S. troops was supposed to get under way this morning, into heretofore dangerous areas of Mogadishu. Tomorrow, according to Richard Grant of CARE, the agency that distributes the food brought in by the WFP, a convoy will head for Baidoa, again protected by Americans, probably Marines.

That, at least, is the plan, he said. It all depends on the U.S. forces.

The announcement by Mr. Grant of the 10-truck convoy to Baidoa led to speculation that the Marines would soon move to secure it in anticipation of the convoy's arrival. Military spokesmen would not comment on this.

But Maj. Jehangeb Afridi, the commander of the 500 Pakistani U.N. forces who have held the airport since early in the fall and whose men will drive the convoy trucks, said, "You don't have to be a great military genius" to conclude that Baidoa will be secured.

Mr. Mitchell reported that some of the relief agencies are still pulling their people out of the interior towns. "A large number of technicals [the jalopy battle wagons invented by the Somalian gunmen] were moving through Waajid heading for the Ethiopian border," he reported yesterday.

The U.S. special representative to Somalia, Robert Oakley, achieved something of a political coup yesterday when he managed to get the two principal warlords whose forces divide this city to agree to meet today at the U.S. Embassy.

General Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed, who calls himself the interim president of Somalia, also agreed to a second meeting tomorrow on a French ship carrying humanitarian supplies.

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