The White House has dispatched a 2,400-member U.S. Marine expeditionary force based at Camp Pendleton to international waters off Somalia to serve as a deterrent and provide search-and-rescue capabilities in support of U.N. peacekeeping troops guarding food shipments for the country's starving people.
The military unit also is to provide communications support for the 500 Pakistani U.N. peacekeeping troops U.S. planes are now flying into the Somalian capital of Mogadishu, Pentagon officials said.
The Marine presence, which is to continue for an indefinite period, is seen as a necessary security measure for the U.S. transport operation. But there are no plans to place any of the U.S. troops ashore, said Air Force Lt. Col. Jean Freitas.
The Marines, members of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, completed exercises with the Kuwaiti military in the Persian Gulf in late August.
A Defense Department official said the unit is crossing the Indian Ocean en route to Somalia's coast aboard the amphibious ship Tarawa and three other vessels, reportedly a tank landing craft and two dock ships, with a full compliment of helicopters and ground assault vehicles. It is large enough to make a significant landing along the Somalian coast if necessary.
NBC News reported Tuesday night that a contingent of Air Force commandos also is involved in the operation. This report said the U.S. commandos will protect airfields used by the Air Force planes that are ferrying Pakistani soldiers. The U.N. operation is intended to protect food and other supplies to alleviate widespread starvation in Somalia.
Pentagon officials have said that in addition to airlifting supplies of food into three airfields within Somalia, the international community would consider delivering humanitarian aid by ship if necessary. Such an operation might require the seizure of a toehold along the Somalian coast.