Marines, amid gunfire, withdraw from Somalia

March 03, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- With U.S. Marines pouring out gunfire to safeguard a U.N. retreat, the world gave up on woebegone Somalia today.

The goodbye was purely military: Seventy-three hours after landing, the last of the Marines, their machine gun barrels still hot, rumbled across the beach and splashed their amphibious assault vehicles into the Indian Ocean, bound for home or duty stations elsewhere.

Fading into the distance was the sorrowful pop of Somali gunfire, the national anthem for this disintegrated nation.

For the first time since the United Nations reached out a helping hand in May 1992, Somalis were left entirely on their own.

The Marines thus completed their mission of extracting the United Nations from what had become a deadly, costly, frustrating and muddled campaign.

No American battle casualties were reported from the three-day withdrawal. But by the time the last wave of 15 armored assault troop carriers slipped into the water at 1 a.m. on a moonless Mogadishu night, the sky had been set ablaze repeatedly by gunfights, as Somalis tested the American lines.

Earlier in the operation, at least five Somalis were confirmed killed by Marines, the American military command said. However, the liveliest fighting occurred subsequently and there was no final accounting of Somali losses. Other Somalis almost certainly died in gunfights among themselves during the land rush to reoccupy Mogadishu's seaport and beach-front military encampments as they were vacated.

The Marines, many from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and a contingent of Italian marines landed here Feb. 28 to protect the evacuation of 2,400 U.N. peacekeepers, troops from Bangladesh and Pakistan. The last of these soldiers boarded a ferry at Mogadishu's port.

The Marines then pulled back for three miles down the coast, staging what they called "delay and defend" maneuvers. At an arc of sand code-named Green Beach, they swung their amphibious vehicles toward the surf, formed a line and, with guns aimed backward, plunged into the sea.

The stay had been so brief that nobody had bothered to raise the American flag over the military command post.

Somalia, along with the de-evolution of Yugoslavia, taught the world a sobering lesson. Even powerful coalitions of nations with billions of dollars in resources are arrogant to believe that they can impose either order or democracy on others.

"The world may have bitten off more than it could chew in terms of trying to bring the Somalis to form a government," conceded U.S. envoy to Somalia George Bennett, who sailed away with the naval task force.

Ironically, the U.N. deployment, which included many thousands of American troops from December 1992 to March 1994, may have left Somalis united behind one idea: a common disregard for outside meddlers.

Said Mr. Bennett: "The people who look at Somalia now with even a small amount of optimism operate from the premise that as foreigners leave, Somalis themselves may be able to get together, close the door, and inside the family, say, 'OK, now it's time to wrap this up and make a government'."

The alternative vision for Somalia is harsh -- continued warfare between armed clans, sub-clans and bandit militias; an impoverished landscape torn into ever shifting enclaves and absorbed in bloody rivalries; a life of brutal squalor for most of 9 million Somalis.

America's armed forces gave up 30 lives here in 1993. During its years on the ground, the United Nations lost more than 100. Somali casualties no doubt ran into the thousands. The price tag exceeded $2 billion.

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