In Somalia, UN Forces Close Book On Mission

MOGADISHU -- The last UN peacekeepers abandoned anarchic Somalia on Thursday, closely followed by U.S. and Italian marines who left Mogadishu seaport and headed for the beaches.

Witnesses said the marines moved out of the seaport in a convoy for the nearby beaches as shots and explosions thundered near their route and Super Cobra helicopter gunships screamed overhead.

The firing was apparently a mixture of warning shots, fired by the marine force as it pulled back, and shooting from Somali gunmen keen to seize and loot the seaport and nearby airfield.

Somali militiamen brandishing rifles and rockets massed in streets outside the seaport and airport as the departure of the last foreign troops drew near, ending two years of bloody and costly military intervention.

There were no immediate reports of casualties as the pullout reached its most dangerous phase. A U.S. marine shot and killed a Somali who fired a rocket-propelled grenade towards U.S. lines Wednesday.

The departure by ship of the UN rearguard of 1,500 Pakistani troops ended a failed UN mission to bring food and peace to the shattered country that cost the lives of 132 peacekeepers and billions of dollars.

Operation United Shield to evacuate the UN troops brought U.S. marines back to the very beaches where they landed in December 1992 to help end a famine in Operation Restore Hope.

The last of 1,800 U.S. marines and 400 Italian soldiers who landed Tuesday to protect the pullout by the Pakistanis were expected to leave from the beaches on amphibious vehicles to reach a flotilla of 32 warships off Mogadishu.

Many experts predict clan warfare between militias after Somalis are abandoned to their fate. Mogadishu is the high-risk zone but fighting could spread to relatively peaceful provincial areas.

Proof of the danger came from Rome on Wednesday with news that two Italian aid workers had been kidnapped in the north-central town of Garoowe.

The Italian foreign ministry said Salvatore Grungo and Giuseppe Barbero were probably seized Tuesday. They were working on a windmill project run by the Lay Volunteers International Association.

The ministry again urged relief agencies to withdraw foreign staff from Somalia until security improved. All have pulled their international staff out of Mogadishu.

Chaos erupted at dawn Wednesday as the Pakistanis left the airport's outer perimeter in a long column of tanks.

Hordes of looters, mostly women, invaded the airfield pursued by UN-trained Somali police and militiamen in "technicals" -- jeeps mounted with anti-aircraft guns and mortars.

The militiamen, apparently trying to maintain law and order, fired wildly over the heads of the surging crowds and bullets crackled over the foreign troops in positions overlooking the runway.

"We watched them for a while. We never saw the technicals aim at us," Zinni said. "MEU units [Marine Expeditionary Units] fired warning shots. One technical waved at us and then pulled back."

Mohamed Farah Aideed, the militia leader whose followers battled U.S.-led forces in Mogadishu for five months in 1993, made a bold visit to the airport to talk to his commanders.

His Somali National Alliance militias were running the"technicals" into the airport, although Somalis have tried to forge an agreement between rival clans on joint control of the seaport and airport after the last foreign troops leave.

Both are valuable assets in a country destroyed by war as control of them could close down all trade, threatening a repeat of the 1992 famine which prompted foreign intervention in the first place.