WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department said yesterday that there would be more battles like the fierce attack on Somalian gunmen and capture of a warlord's weapons arsenal as U.S. and allied troops sought to "stabilize" the country.
The "firestorm" that U.S. Marines rained on the clan positions in an arms-storage area in Mogadishu yesterday was by far the largest exercise of force since the troops arrived on their humanitarian mission Dec. 9.
It appeared to signal a new phase in which far more aggressive action is to be taken to seize the heavy weapons from warring factions. Such action is in order now that the original mission of facilitating food distribution to starving Somalis is well in hand, officials said.
There had been increasing sniper attacks on the Marines and clashes among Somalian clans, according to reports from Mogadishu.
"We're just not going to have anybody interfere with our efforts," Pentagon spokesman Bob Hall said yesterday. "There's going to be more of these kinds of encounters, and we're going to be more aggressive about trying to get the heavy weapons under control, as well as get as many of the other weapons as we can under some kind of control. That's part of what stabilization is all about."
The new phase is likely to be more dangerous, but there was no suggestion in official comments yesterday that it would prolong the U.S. forces' stay in Somalia.
In a television interview yesterday, Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston, the U.S. commander in Somalia, said he had no timetable but that it was "realistic" to expect that some U.S. units might be able to move out within 20 to 30 days.
General Johnston refused to equate the potential for more fighting with a deteriorating situation. Aggressive patrols will set up conditions "for us getting involved in direct confrontation with technicals [gunmen on gun-mounted trucks] and gangsters," he said. That is the focus now that there is "a free flow of relief supplies," he said.
Yesterday's assault on the arms depot in Mogadishu was "larger than anything else we've done in Somalia, a deliberate escalation toshow them we mean business," said James A. Blackwell Jr., political-military affairs director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It was carefully planned, he said, for "deterrent effect on the thugs running around Mogadishu."
The operation involved several hundred Marines and combined infantry, tanks, artillery and aircraft in a swift, complex assault.
At least seven Somalis were killed in the raid, which was directed at two arsenals in northwest Mogadishu controlled by fighters loyal to Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, one of Somalia's two most powerful warlords.
Military officials said the Somalis inside the compound appeared to be leaderless and undisciplined.
One Marine was wounded by another in what officials said was a case of mistaken identity. The injury was not life-threatening, and the wounded man was being treated aboard the helicopter carrier USS Tripoli.
More than a dozen people were taken prisoner from the two walled compounds, and the Marines seized weapons including tanks, anti-aircraft guns, mortars and more than 15 field artillery guns, said Maj. Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, commander of the 1st Marine Division.
The Marines had broadcast warnings to the gunmen in the weapons compounds to come out with their hands up.
Instead, as the force moved forward, two Somalis began to train anti-aircraft weapons on Marine helicopters.
"That to us was an immediate provocation, and we took out that weapon system with our gunships," General Johnston said. A Marine patrol had come under sniper fire earlier, Mogadishu reports said.
"We hit them with a firestorm," General Wilhelm said in Mogadishu.
Yesterday's Marine assault against Mr. Aidid's depots occurred as warlords and other Somalian political leaders met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where United Nations sources said they were nearing agreement yesterday on the first tentative steps toward peace in Somalia and a national reconciliation conference.
The only holdout was Mr. Aidid, but, rather than reject the agreement, he asked for a day's extension of the U.N.-sponsored talks. U.N. officials granted the extension on the assumption that Mr. Aidid intended to give his assent by this afternoon.
The agreement, according to the U.N. sources, would:
* Convene a national reconciliation conference in April or May in Mogadishu or Washington.
* Appoint a committee made up of representatives from all 14 factions to prepare an agenda and other arrangements for the conference.
* Create a second committee, made up of similar representatives, to monitor a cease-fire throughout Somalia.
* Call for participants in the current talks to reconvene in Addis Ababa in a month to receive reports from the two committees.
The agreement seemed meager. Some outsiders even doubted whether it would be adhered to once the leaders returned to Somalia. But U.N. officials have said since the meetings began Monday that the opening of discussions is far more significant than the details of any agreement.
"What I see is more positive than negative," a high-ranking U.N. official said. "Almost 100 delegates from the 14 political movements are negotiating in the same hotel and meeting each other in small groups in the lobby. That is important."