The White House on Saturday condemned the deadly downing of a U.S. helicopter over Mogadishu but, anticipating new criticism from Capitol Hill, strongly reaffirmed its commitment to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
The attack, in which three American airmen were killed when their Black Hawk helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by a Somali gunman, "underscores the need to re-establish security in Mogadishu to prevent the international humanitarian efforts from being undermined," White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said.
The helicopter's pilot and co-pilot survived the fiery crash-landing early Saturday, which drew jubilant Somali crowds who danced about the wreckage and, according to some reports, paraded pieces of flesh from the dead crewmen.
Myers said the Clinton Administration is determined to prevent the "brutality of warlords" from undermining the famine-stricken country's "substantial yet fragile progress" toward the restoration of law and order.
But the defensive tone of the statement suggested that it was intended less as a warning to the warlords than as an appeal to critics in Congress, where opposition to the Somalia mission is expected to accelerate into calls to bring U.S. forces home.
One senior lawmaker who has already criticized the mission, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), renewed his call for a withdrawal of the U.S. troops in Somalia, now about 5,000.
"Having completed the original mission to feed the starving people of Somalia, we should bring our military forces home. Without a legitimate purpose, we will be drawn further into this quagmire, with a very real prospect for the continued loss of American lives," Byrd said within hours of the latest attack.
The attack in Mogadishu was the bloodiest incident involving U.S. forces in Somalia since four American peacekeepers were killed when their truck was blown up by a mine Aug. 8. The first time that an aircraft has been shot down over Mogadishu, it also appeared to mark a significant escalation in the hit-and-run guerrilla war being waged against the peacekeepers by forces loyal to renegade Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid.
A Reuters news service report from the Somali capital said that Somalis celebrated the downing of the helicopter by dancing in the streets with sticks that bore pieces of flesh from the dead crewmen, whose identities still have not been released by the Pentagon.
U.N. forces spokesman Maj. David Stockwell earlier denied reports that the Somalis had dismembered the crewmen's bodies, saying that all of the remains had been recovered.
But eyewitness reports from reporters on the scene repeatedly referred to dismembered body parts paraded through the streets by gleeful militia supporters, and Stockwell was later quoted as conceding that perhaps not all remains were recovered.
"We believed we had gathered all . . . the remains, (but) because (the crash) was catastrophic, it's impossible to tell," Reuters quoted Stockwell as saying.
The two survivors of the crash-landing fled to safety after seeing that three crew members in the back seat were dead, according to U.N. officials and news reports from Mogadishu. Three other American soldiers and three Pakistanis were wounded in a fierce gun battle that erupted as U.N. ground troops converged on the scene. An unknown number of Somalis were killed in that battle, the reports said.
U.N. officials have blamed Aidid and his forces for the deaths of more than 50 U.N. peacekeepers since May. After previous attacks on peacekeepers, U.N. forces have launched airborne assaults on suspected Aidid strongholds in southern Mogadishu.
On Capitol Hill, congressional unease has been steadily growing over what is widely perceived as an unfocused and perilous mission that has strayed far from its original humanitarian purpose of feeding starving Somalis.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) summed up the lawmakers' dismay earlier this month after U.N. troops fired into a crowd of women and children being used by Aidid's gunmen as human shields. "We went into Somalia to keep people from starving to death, and now we are killing women and children because they are combatants," he said.
The statement by Myers seemed to be aimed at preempting some of the criticism that can be expected when lawmakers assemble in Washington on Monday.
"At times like this, it is essential to remember the reasons for our engagement in the 25-nation U.N. mission in Somalia," she said.
But the Administration's assessment of the progress being made to reconcile Somalia's rival clan militias is clearly not shared by many lawmakers, who say they are being confronted with anxious questions about the mission from the families of service personnel and other constituents.
"The situation on the Hill with respect to Somalia is very volatile now," said a senior aide to a Democratic House leader.
The leadership is "still on the Administration's side," he added, "but the rank and file is very disgruntled and the tide is beginning to turn against the Administration."