A ragtag brigade of Somali irregulars with their "Mad Max"-style vehicles holed up here Tuesday to enjoy what was supposed to have been the start of peace.
But enemy forces repeatedly fired into their camp, five miles outside Mogadishu, despite efforts by the United States to engineer an end to the violence between rival factions in Somalia's civil war.
"They are bandits or thieves, but they do not come to face us," said Hosan Abdi Mohamed, the declared "colonel" of the outfit, who was clad in castoff military garb.
It was a rocky beginning to a pact between warlords Mohamed Farah Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed, who had agreed to withdraw forces from Mogadishu under American pressure to reduce violence in the shattered city.
U.S. military officials late Tuesday said that under the accord, 80 heavily armed "technicals"--jeeps, trucks and other small vehicles with various types of weaponry mounted on them--and an undetermined number of troops had been yanked from the city.
"We feel it's significant," said Marine Col. Fred Peck, spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition. Although he acknowledged that the withdrawal is "not an end to heavy armament in Mogadishu," he said the removal of the technicals was "the beginning of an evolutionary process" toward stabilizing the city.
It was an imperfect detente. Peck said that rival gangs clashed within the city shortly after noon Tuesday and that American forces had wandered into the fray. "Our guys just happened to stumble in on it and everybody split," Peck said. No injuries were reported.
For Hosan Abdi Mohamed, who had complied with the peace initiative by taking his 1,500 troops from the city to a rural base, it was a little premature to celebrate. "We don't want to fight, we are tired of war, but if somebody comes to disturb the peace, we will fight," he said.
The atmosphere was extremely tense in this base camp, where journalists--including reporters from The Times and two French news organizations--received a tentative reception. Commanders loudly debated whether to allow the foreigners in.
Finally the colonel agreed to let two reporters and three photographers visit. But he tersely advised: "Make this investigation fast. There is war near us."
The base was hidden in a dense overgrowth; at least three tanks, several cannon and rusted mortars were scattered throughout the compound. Numerous teen-agers and even boys were cloistered with AK-47s and a few vintage Soviet machine guns. There was a husband and his wife, swathed in colorful native costumes, lovingly walking around, both holding semiautomatic weapons.
During a nearly hourlong visit, the colonel spoke nonchalantly although sporadic shots were being fired at the perimeter of his camp. He said the arrival of U.S. Marines was a decisive step toward imposing peace in Somalia. "We like them, they are peacemaking," he said. "They are welcome, we need them."
But he declared that his troops are unwilling to lay down their weapons so long as their archenemies are still attacking their Haber Gidir clan, a branch of the Fuliman tribe. "We need peace, but we are military and need to protect ourselves," he said.
Asked whether he supports the agreement by the warlords to remove technicals from Mogadishu, he replied, "We are ready to accept orders" from the top commander. But he said he doubted that the pact would result in lasting peace in the capital.
"We cannot suggest Mogadishu is guaranteed for peace," he said through an Ethiopian interpreter brought by the journalists.
Suddenly, Hosan Abdi Mohamed felt comfortable with the reporters and photographers and showed them several Soviet cannons concealed at the base. The equipment seemed in disrepair.
But the colonel--some of whose men have fought for 11 years--beamed with pride when several technicals sporting .50-caliber machine guns and a large recoilless rifle appeared from the camp's beleaguered perimeter.