The U.S. Marine general commanding an operation to remove the last U.N. troops from Somalia said Saturday that preparations for a protective force to come ashore were almost complete.
"There are very few things to work out, and what's left is very minor. . . . It's a very complex operation," Lt. Gen. Anthony Zinni told reporters at a U.N. military base just outside Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
"I don't see that there's any major threat looming out there," he added after a meeting of commanders from the multinational task force that has gathered on warships off Mogadishu's Indian Ocean coast.
There are fears that Somali militias, whose feuds have wrecked the Horn of Africa country and forced the U.N. withdrawal, would attack departing troops in an attempt to plunder military hardware and vehicles.
But Zinni was confident that up to 2,000 U.S. Marines and 500 Italian soldiers coming ashore to extract about 2,400 Pakistani and Bangladeshi troops would not be in danger of a direct assault.
A U.S. military spokesman, Marine Lt. Col. Jerry Broeckert, refused to reveal when Operation United Shield would get under way.
The U.N. operation in Somalia is set to hand over command of its beachhead bases in Mogadishu's port and airfield to Zinni on Tuesday, indicating that U.S. and Italian troops are likely to go ashore hours prior to that.
The radio station of Mohammed Farah Aidid, whose militias battled U.S. troops in 1993, quoted him as saying his forces would not attack the Americans. But it also quoted him as urging vigilance against any incursions outside the declared aims of the mission.
The U.N. force was part of an operation that at one point involved 30,000 troops from 28 nations in an effort to restore order in Somalia and safeguard convoys bringing aid to victims of a famine that killed hundreds of thousands.
Zinni said he felt encouraged by the level of security around the perimeters of the U.N. bases.
But in chaotic scenes, U.N. troops and Somali police tried vainly to hold back mobs of Somali youths who scaled the walls and crawled through holes cut in the wire during the day.
Like crowds waiting for a department store sale, Somalis said they intended to sleep at the airport so that they would get the first pickings of whatever the United Nations leaves behind.
The operation, which is costing the United States alone $15 million, is not only to evacuate troops but also to recover helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles leased to the United Nations last March after Western contingents abandoned the mission.