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U.S. planes blast warlord's strongholds

U.N. forces, including 1,200 American soldiers and heavily armed flying gunships, struck back before dawn, blasting strongholds of Somali clan leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid in retaliation for an ambush last weekend that killed 23 Pakistani peacekeepers.

Shortly after 4 this morning (9 p.m. EDT), tracer flares suddenly lit up the star-lit night sky over the Somali capital. Seconds later, explosions and heavy machine-gun fire rocked the city. The strike began with the clatter of unseen helicopters. Minutes later, the flash of rockets could be seen in three parts of the city.

At least two high-flying U.S. AC-130H gunships slowly circled the city. They fired at will.

The U.N. attack concentrated on blowing up ammo dumps and warehouses belonging to Aidid (pronounced Ah-DEED) and taking over a Mogadishu radio station that he has been using to promote opposition to U.N. forces. The targets also included his command quarters.

After 40 minutes, the first wave of the action came to an end. The Pentagon had no immediate assessment of the operation's effectiveness. Neither was there word on casualties.

As dawn came over the broken capital, an eerie calm fell over the deserted streets. Twice the call to prayer echoed through the city in this mostly Muslim country.

In a second phase of the operation, Islamic troops from the 18,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force were to fan out to establish order in the city and retake the streets from the Somalis. The ground troops are expected to try to capture Aidid. They may move in today.

The operation was one of the largest and most aggressive since the early days of the international military mission, which was launched in December to expedite aid shipments and restore order.

The AC-130H "Spectre" gunships, which have their home base at Florida's Hurlburt Field, can deliver devastating firepower. The aircraft, a modified C-130 cargo plane, carries a 105mm howitzer, a 40mm and two 20mm rapid-fire guns and two 7.62mm mini-guns.

All are equipped for night operations and linked to computer fire-control devices that enable the pilot to look at a target visually and merely press a trigger-button to destroy it. They are regarded as one of the most potent weapons for such operations.

The big planes fly in a slow circle over their target _ with all of their weapons mounted on one side of the plane _ and can blast ground targets with both pinpoint accuracy and awesome power.

The United States flew four of the planes to neighboring Djibouti on Wednesday to help strengthen the firepower of U.N. forces in Somalia.

In a statement released at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Les Aspin said the American and U.N. forces were engaging "in a military action against those responsible for armed attacks against U.N. Forces in Mogadishu on June 5."

"This response is essential if the U.N. is to be able to continue its long-term humanitarian relief and reconstruction efforts in Somalia," he added.

The attack was authorized by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and President Clinton, who met earlier in the day with Aspin; Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and other national security advisers.

The U.N. troops, in a groundbreaking exercise in peace enforcement, are being asked to flush out Somali gunmen and end the power of warlords who have terrorized and starved the nation for more than two years.

Aidid, the warlord, was believed to have ordered the ambush that killed the Pakistani forces. Last week's attack on Pakistani troops marked one of the bloodiest such incidents in U.N. history. By the time it was over, 23 Pakistani soldiers had been killed and 59 others were wounded. The U.N. Security Council ordered the perpetrators apprehended.

This morning's U.N. raid also was intended to serve notice to other clan leaders that the United Nations will not tolerate further violence.

Clinton administration strategists have been fearful that failure by the United Nations to retaliate for last week's ambush would irreparably damage the credibility of the peacekeeping operation and of similar U.N. ventures around the globe.

Bracing for the attack, U.N. staff and relief workers had been evacuated by the hundreds to Nairobi, Kenya, closing down relief centers and leaving countless Somalis hungry once again. The few remaining U.N. staff were moved to the headquarters compound.

In line with current U.S. military doctrine, the U.N. action was swift, using overwhelming forces, with the aim of destroying most of Aidid's weapons and effectively crippling him as a political force in the country.

Pentagon officials, in constant touch with the U.S. and U.N. forces in Somalia, said the attack began with sorties by two of the AC-130H gunships, followed by forays by ground troops. The action was carried live worldwide by Cable News Network.

The U.N. forces conducting the attack on Friday included 1,200 members of the U.S. quick-response force, which consists of members of the 10th Mountain light infantry battalion from Fort Drum, N.Y., that has been on call in Somalia for the last two months.

All told, there are 18,000 foreign troops in Somalia, including 10,000 to 11,000 in Mogadishu.

The peacekeepers are a polyglot force including troops from Pakistan, the United States, Belgium, Botswana, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Kuwait, Morocco, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The largest is the Pakistani force of 4,400.

There are 4,200 U.S. military personnel in Somalia.

Friday night's action came amid an atmosphere of increasing violence in the Somali capital.

If backup is needed, the United States has dispatched a 4,200-man Navy and Marine assault force for possible intervention in Somalia. The force of four ships includes the U.S. helicopter assault carrier Wasp, a smaller version of the Navy's giant aircraft carriers. It carries Marine ground assault jets and attack helicopters.

The force broke off a military exercise in Kuwait and headed to the Strait of Hormuz, where they would await further instructions. The ships would sail to the waters off Somalia only if needed.

_ Information from the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.