1st Somalian casualties may have been a mistake, Pentagon says

December 12, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- One day after two Somalis were shot and killed in the belief that they and their companions were trying to run a roadblock in Mogadishu, the Pentagon said yesterday that the episode might have been a mistake.

According to the new account, the Somalis were riding in a van -- not, as the original version held, a truck. They were not armed with guns, though some knives were found.

The Pentagon also acknowledged that the Somalis might not have tried to run the roadblock, but might have crashed into it when the van's brakes failed. And the Pentagon said it was possible that the Somalis were members of a family and not a fighting group -- a teen-age girl was among those in the van.

The Pentagon also said that U.S. Marines joined the French in firing on the van, contrary to the original account which just mentioned the French.

Two Somalis were killed by gunfire and seven were wounded, either by shots or by the crash afterward. The deaths were the first caused by the forces sent to the famine-stricken nation.

The episode illustrates the "fog of war," the confusion that often afflicts a military operation in which troops have to make split-second decisions in life-and-death situations, often with little information on their surroundings and their adversaries' intentions. But it does not explain some of the incorrect details in the Pentagon's initial account.

Even though the Pentagon said it was no longer certain that the Somalis meant any harm to the troops, it said the action taken by the French and American troops was proper, since the vehicle failed to heed calls to stop and crashed at night into a barricade that previously had come under fire.

Officials say that the bombing of an American barracks in Lebanon in 1983, in which 241 American personnel were killed, and an almost simultaneous bombing in which over 40 French paratroopers were killed, has cast a shadow over the military intervention in Somalia. The French and American troops are determined not to be object of a terrorist attack.

Lt. Gen. Martin Brandtner, the chief operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon briefing that there were two incidents yesterday in which Somalis fired on American troops. So far, there have been no U.S. casualties.

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