Mayhem Follows Somali Pullout

MOGADISHU -- Mayhem erupted at Mogadishu airfield Wednesday after UN troops abandoned the outer perimeter and hundreds of gunmen and looters invaded, watched by U.S. and Italian marines from beach redoubts.

Somali militias in so-called "technical" vehicles mounted with mortars and anti-aircraft guns, backed by unarmed UN-trained local police, fired wildly in the air to clear hordes of looters from the former peacekeepers' base.

U.S. and Italian marines dived for cover behind sand dunes as bullets whistled over their heads.

"We watched them for a while. We never saw the technicals aim at us," U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Tony Zinni told reporters.

Zinni, who watched the chaotic scene from the top of a sand dune in the gray dawn light, added: "MEU units [Marine Expeditionary Units] fired warning shots. One technical waved at us and then pulled back."

Several grenade or mortar bombs exploded at one end of the runway. It was unclear who fired these, but Somalis said it could have been other militia gangs angry at not sharing the plunder.

U.S. Super Cobra attack helicopters swooped over the chaos and a AC-130 Spectre gunship circled the sky through the day.

At dawn the rearguard of 1,500 Pakistani troops pulled back from the outer walls of the airfield base in a long convoy of tanks and armored vehicles bound for the seaport.

The Pakistanis are due to leave by ship Thursday and are expected to be followed later that day by the 1,800 U.S. marines and 400 Italian soldiers.

Somali militias outside the airport gates and local unarmed police inside had been positioned to stop crowds from invading.

But the looters scaled the walls and moved through deserted warehouses and old troop camps, stealing everything from rations to mattresses.

Many of the mostly female looters had slept around the airport for days so that they could be first in the gates.

Somalis said the militias, destroyers of their country over four years of ethnic feuding, were actually deployed by leaders trying to ensure the peaceful departure of U.S.-led forces.

U.S. diplomats have held talks with the Somalis, notably prominent businessman Osman Hassan Ali "Atto," on security for the operation.

"We want them to leave in peace. We need every friend we can get and I wouldn't advise anyone to have America as an enemy," Osman Atto said at his house in the city.

He said that the armed technicals were from the Somali National Alliance militia of Mohamed Farah Aideed, the warlord who battled U.S.-led forces in Mogadishu in 1993.

Militias from the Abgal clan, rivals of Aideed and Osman Atto's Habre Gedir, occupied the southern section of the airfield without clashing.

In a bold gesture Wednesday, Aideed visited the airport gates to order his militia commanders to stop the looting, witnesses said. At the airport he was well within range of U.S. Marines, some of whom remember their comrades' deaths with bitterness.