Marines Go Ashore in Somalia : Troops Unopposed in Mission to Aid Starving : Famine: Forces secure the airfield and port in the capital of Mogadishu. TV crews wait for arrival and light up Marines. Some Somalis appear to surrender and are turned over to U.N. peacekeepers.
A strike force of 1,800 Camp Pendleton-based U.S. Marines swept ashore here before dawn today, taking over the airport and port and launching a humanitarian mission that will bring at least 28,000 American servicemen to this chaotic, famine-racked African nation over the holidays.
The troops, deployed from a flotilla in the Indian Ocean, were ferried ashore by helicopters, Hovercraft and amphibious assault vessels, escorted by armed Cobra choppers that filled the gray, cloudy skies.
Analysts described the start of the U.S.-led Operation Restore Hope as a textbook military maneuver, and President Bush praised the effort. The troops--assigned to a U.N.-endorsed humanitarian mission to try to feed millions of starving Somalis--seemed to encounter little early resistance, but they did run smack into a horde of curious journalists.
When the main Marine force began to arrive, however, some Somalis came up to the troops and appeared to surrender to them. As camera crews gathered to film the action, the Somalis were ordered to lie on the ground. They later were turned over to U.N. peacekeeping forces from Pakistan who already were in Mogadishu; they were found to be airport employees and were released by an angry Brig. Gen. Ishaq Shaheen, head of the Pakistani U.N. contingent.
The Marines also encountered scattered gunfire when they raced to take control of the port area. The skirmish appeared to be minor, however, and the Marines captured some Somali gunmen and seized some weapons as they consolidated their control of the key areas of the port and airport.
Indeed, the U.S.-led forces, as they fanned out through the Mogadishu area, were making it clear that they were in control: They established roadblocks, stopped cars, searched for weapons and confiscated weapons they found on the city’s streets, which were freer than usual of the roving, rival gangs.
Speed and ease seemed to mark the mission from its start. One of the first reports that it had begun was received at 12:37 p.m. Pacific time, when the Cable News Network reported that it had sighted Navy Seals coming ashore to prepare the way for the main Marine force. Moments later, CNN, using special equipment that could pierce the darkness, showed the Seals landing.
Much of the first phase of the operation, whose aim is to protect relief shipments into the country and food distribution throughout Somalia, occurred during television’s prime time. TV crews from around the globe were stationed in Mogadishu and provided peculiar, unprecedented broadcast coverage of the Marine mission.
As the small reconnaissance unit slipped into the sleeping Somali capital just after midnight today, for example, it met not a hostile force but an army of photographers and camera crews.
Under a full moon, in a narrow cove adjacent to the international airport, the troops hauled in two inflatable rafts filled with their equipment-laden packs. Their every movement was recorded by a mob of camera crews who had camped out on the beachhead in anticipation of their arrival.
The troops scurried across the beach toward bunkers as photographers and camera crews chased them through the dunes and brush, attempting to interview the stone-faced, greasepainted men. The only time they reacted was when they heard a single, distant gunshot--it was just part of the random, occasional small-arms fire that is common in Mogadishu.
After receiving some brief, intense and obviously bewildering attention, which included at least one CBS television report from a bunker, the troops dug in and refused to acknowledge the journalists, who then left them alone.
But when the main Marine force, dispatched from a three-ship amphibious flotilla stationed a mile from the beach, began to land, they were clearly stunned to find their beachhead already taken by hundreds of cameramen from around the world.
“Get out of the way, get out of the way!” shouted one Marine, as he tried to steer his bulky amphibious assault vehicle over a 10-foot sand dune through television floodlights and scrambling photographers.
The massive press contingent, which appeared to have delayed the Marines’ arrival, remained on the dunes between the beach and the airport runway, despite a desperate plea from a Marine captain, who suddenly appeared out of the darkness to warn: “It’s not going to be a pretty sight down here. . . . We don’t want to see anyone injured.
“This is literally a three-ring circus on this beach right now,” he added, grumbling, “None of us anticipated this.”
In Southern California, the extensive, almost-surreal, live television coverage of the operation allayed fears of Marine families who gathered to watch at Camp Pendleton’s Headquarters Enlisted Club. The coverage let them share the experience of their loved ones on the Somali mission.
But it also prompted criticism that echoed complaints voiced by top military officials about intrusive media coverage.
“My first honest reaction when I saw all the TV lights on the men was, ‘Live coverage is OK, as long as you’re not endangering someone’s life,’ ” said Debbie Blackgrave, 39, whose spouse, Wendell, a first sergeant, was on the Rushmore and has been gone since Oct. 15. “But my husband’s life is more important than somebody’s news story.”
Cpl. Doug Anderson, 30, who will be heading for Somalia within the week, agreed. “I feel they should have secured the area before they let the media in,” he said. “Nothing is ever sure for a Marine. You go in expecting anything.”
But as it grew clear that the operation was proceeding without incident, the criticism gave way to relief. “I was worried before I started watching. But it looks like things are going so smoothly, it’s a real sense of relief,” said Jackie Vicinus, 22, bouncing her 5-month-old boy on her knee and watching for signs of her husband--Lance Cpl. Kevin Vicinus.
She added that the broadcast coverage--criticized by Pentagon officials for potentially endangering reconnaissance forces, who are accustomed to working with stealth in the darkness--was “really incredible. I never imagined that we’d see them doing their jobs. It gives you a little sense of relief because we haven’t seen them in so long.”
That the American forces confronted so little Somali opposition when they landed may have been due in part to extensive diplomatic efforts by the United States to assure the warlords of Somalia that the Americans plan a strictly humanitarian relief effort here.
Robert Oakley, a former ambassador to Somalia and now President Bush’s special envoy to the embattled nation, met for an hour each on Tuesday with two key clan leaders, Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed. “They promised complete cooperation,” Oakley said.
In a radio address broadcast on one of two rival warlord stations, Aidid called on his heavily armed gunmen to stay away from Mogadishu’s airport and port; similar orders were broadcast by rival warlord Mahdi, who controls the northern third of the city.
Aidid, who controls two-thirds of the anarchic capital, including areas the Marines were to take control of, made it clear during a news conference with his top aide late Tuesday afternoon that he had pledged to keep his forces away only from the airport and port.
Air of Uncertainty
Clearly, the key question of disarming the fierce motorized gangs who wheel through the capital and countryside with abandon--the same forces that have stolen millions of dollars of relief aid for an estimated 2 million starving Somalis--remains unanswered.
“The Somalis have to take the lead,” Oakley said when asked whether American troops plan to disarm a nation where, experts estimate, half the male population now owns and carries a firearm. “For the moment, we’re focusing on Mogadishu. We want the Somalis to feel comfortable with us; we want to feel comfortable with them,” Oakley said.
Relief agencies working in Somalia expressed discomfort about the uncertainty that will prevail until the Marine mission here is fully established and the troops’ role becomes clear.
U.N. officials instructed the more than 200 foreign relief workers to stay indoors for at least 24 to 48 hours. They urged them to fire the armed gangs--called “technicals"--that they have had to hire for their own security. U.N. officials said relief groups should simply wait for new guidelines from the new armed forces in town.
“We’re telling everyone, ‘If you don’t have to travel from your compound, don’t,’ ” said Ian McLeod, spokesman and program officer with UNICEF in Mogadishu.
Deepening fears among relief workers that they could become hostages if Somali hostility against the U.S.-led forces grows, an Italian aid worker was taken into custody by Aidid’s forces Monday and charged with possessing strategic maps. Aidid indicated during his news conference that his group would release the Italian presently, asserting that he had received no information about his detention.
But in his news briefing Tuesday evening, Oakley conceded that the capital’s two main warlords do not control all the armed men who have terrorized most of the city during its two years of anarchy. “They said they will do their best,” he told reporters, insisting that “the atmosphere is very positive.”
Indeed, throughout the day, there were signs of hope. The Somali shilling--long a ridiculous currency pegged by an armed cartel at 7,000 to the dollar--soared in value, reaching 4,000 to the dollar by day’s end; that fueled an optimism built not merely on the arrival of American troops but on a spurt in street trade.
But on the streets by Tuesday evening, there were stray shootings citywide, deepening the air of uncertainty. There were unconfirmed reports of killings, one allegedly just feet from the entrance of a makeshift hotel housing much of the international press corps that has descended on Mogadishu for the Marines’ arrival.
It also appeared undecided just when and how the U.S.-led military force would fan out through the countryside, where the famine and war have combined to render an entire population literally starving to death.
Looting of food by roving gangs, often loosely under the direction of Somalia’s two competing warlords, has become endemic, with up to 90% of the donated grain being stolen either in the ports, at the airports or in trucks en route to feeding camps.
More than 300,000 Somalis already have died, and the death rate, which dropped for a time after relief food began to arrive earlier this year, has begun to rise again, to about 1,000 a day.
Operation Restore Hope is planned in stages. After the Marines seize the airport, ports and an additional airport in Baidoa, the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry unit based at Fort Drum, N.Y., will arrive by air.
In outlining the United Nations’ authorized operation last week, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the troops will remain only long enough to get the relief food moving. Then, he said, U.N. peacekeeping troops would probably take over. “We’re sort of like the cavalry coming to the rescue, straightening things out for a while and then letting the marshals come back in to keep things under control,” he said.
Although the rules of engagement are officially secret, military officials have said that U.S.-led troops will not have to wait until fired on to use maximum force. If they think they are in danger, they will be able to take preemptive action.
In Washington, minutes after the amphibious operation was launched, the White House issued a statement saying the President was “pleased” that it seemed to be such a success. Officials said he will be kept abreast of developments.
At the Pentagon, officials said Tuesday that the Marine expeditionary force was backed up by a flotilla of seven naval vessels, including the aircraft carrier Ranger and the cruiser Valley Forge, three amphibious assault ships--the Tripoli, the Rushmore and the Juneau--and two oilers.
Also off the Somali coast were three ships carrying equipment and supplies for the 1,800 Marines. The three are now scheduled to arrive in the Mogadishu port on Thursday, to be followed by a fourth a few days later.
Units composed of about 16,000 members of the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton and the 10,000-member Army 10th Mountain Division of light infantry continued to prepare for deployment to Somalia but had not yet been ordered to embark, the Defense Department said.
Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams also said that about 500 reservists and National Guard troops with critical specialties such as civil affairs and fuel transportation have volunteered for service with the active-duty forces in Somalia.
Pentagon officials emphasized Tuesday the health hazards U.S. troops would be facing in Somalia, which is laden with potentially lethal diseases ranging from AIDS to yellow fever. But they said the units would have adequate medical care.
Williams also disclosed that about 35 countries are sending troops or financial contributions to the Somali effort or are “discussing” that prospect with U.S. authorities; he declined to provide a list.
Besides the American forces, a huge contingent of journalists had arrived in Mogadishu to cover the action.
All three American networks have spent days flying in the highest of high-tech supplies and setting up satellite ground stations at the airport, which, before this week, was nothing but a gutted shell with an anemic force of 200 U.N. soldiers from Pakistan and a heavily armed clan of hired guns.
The three networks also flew in their anchormen by charter flights and arranged to broadcast evening news shows from the capital with live reports--not merely from Mogadishu but from the airport and dock sites.
By focusing the world’s eyes on the airport and port, the U.S. Marine landing--at least to some--appeared to be little more than a massive photo opportunity, unprecedented in the history of military operations. Concluded one foreign journalist here late Tuesday: “This will certainly be the most heavily hyped and recorded invasion in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. But what about the starving Somalis?”
Kraft reported from aboard the Tripoli and Fineman from Mogadishu. Times staff writers Art Pine in Washington and Lee Romney at Camp Pendleton also contributed to this report.
HELPING SOMALIA: A list of charitable organizations accepting donations. B2
U.S. Troops Move In
Marines moved into the airport and various points of Mogadishu early today. The Marines’ immediate mission: to make the capital and Baidoa safe for builders and engineers who will prepare Mogadishu for a massive airlift of troops and equipment.
Paving the Way
Key goals for engineering units once the city is secure
* Airport: Widen aprons and improve facilities to accommodate C-5 and C-140 cargo planes
* Seaport: Set up ship-unloading operations
* Storage: Establish warehouse and distribution points for supplies
* Phone lines: Establish communications network to coordinate military and relief efforts
* Rations: Set up field kitchens to feed incoming troops
Beach landing: Navy Seals hit the beach just after midnight Somali time (12:37 p.m. PST), looking for mines and clearing the way for landing craft. Troops then landed near the airport and harbor.