U.N. troops backed by American airpower seized the headquarters of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid on Thursday, but the defiant general's militia fought back in six hours of fierce street battles that caused heavy U.N. and Somali casualties.
The fighting left five U.N. troops dead and 44 wounded, including one American soldier slightly injured by flying glass, according to a spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. At least 60 Somalis were killed, and scores of buildings, including a hospital and an international relief agency, were damaged by shells, grenades and missiles.
Aidid, the target of the unprecedented and surprisingly bloody U.N. attack, was ordered arrested Thursday, but the warlord eluded capture.
During the fighting, Aidid reportedly was seen at Digfer Hospital, several blocks north of his compound. French and Italian troops in armored vehicles encircled the hospital, but the general managed to escape.
Despite the high death toll and the failure to apprehend Aidid, U.N. military and diplomatic officials sought to depict the operation as a success, saying it had managed to cripple the command and control apparatus of Aidid's clan-based militia in a single blow.
U.N. envoy Jonathan T. Howe, a retired U.S. admiral who issued the Aidid arrest order after the fighting erupted Thursday, said the goal of the military strike was not to capture Aidid but to seize his headquarters and disrupt the nerve center of his militia. Therefore, "it was a complete success," he said. The U.N. troops "performed with great skill, great courage and great attention to avoid civilian casualties," he said.
The United Nations accuses Aidid of orchestrating ambushes June 5 that killed 23 Pakistani peace keepers and, in retaliation, launched U.S. air strikes on three successive days this past week against the warlord's arms depots and a radio station.
U.S. and U.N. officials here refused to release even estimates of casualties. Instead, the numbers were reported by Boutros-Ghali's office in New York, and only for the U.N. troops. Moroccan troops suffered the highest casualties _ four dead, including a lieutenant colonel, and 37 wounded. One Pakistani also was killed, and three were wounded. Three French soldiers suffered wounds.
Somali casualties were difficult to determine with any accuracy. Digfer Hospital reported receiving 45 dead and more than 100 wounded Somalis, while Banadir Hospital, close to the Aidid compound and the scene of much of the fighting, reported nine dead and 19 wounded Somalis.
Reporters watching the running battle from the roof of a hotel at a strategic traffic circle saw U.S. Cobra helicopters fire several heavy anti-tank missiles. Two missiles slammed into the office of the French aid group International Action Against Hunger, killing one relief worker and injuring seven others, according to relief agency officials. Digfer Hospital, where Aidid allegedly sought refuge, also reported some damage to its intensive care unit from projectile explosives that came through the ceiling. U.S. military officials said Aidid gunmen holed up in the hospital used patients as human shields to fire at French troops who had surrounded it.
U.N. ground troops _ mostly Pakistanis, Italians, French and Moroccans, with "a handful" of American infantrymen, according to a U.N. spokesman _ moved on the Aidid compound just after 6 a.m., after more than four hours of intermittent air strikes from U.S. AC-130 flying gunships.
Interspersed with the air attacks were loudspeaker announcements asking all residents of the targeted neighborhood to put down their arms and evacuate to a main street near the fortified U.S. Embassy compound. The loudspeaker messages, in English and Somali, urged Aidid, allied warlord Omar Jess of Kismayu and Aidid's chief financier, Osman Ato, to come out with their hands up. Each announcement offered a new deadline.
U.S. Army Maj. David Stockwell, the U.N. military spokesman in Somalia, said the surrender messages were broadcast, even though arrest warrants for the three men were not issued until later in the morning. The goal of the strike was to seize the militia headquarters and "certainly detaining those individuals would have been appropriate," Stockwell said.
Apparently, few armed men took up the surrender offer, according to area residents and Aidid loyalists interviewed later. One source said Aidid had actually long left his compound, which served as his principal residence in the city and also as a de facto headquarters. The source said the Somalis in the neighborhood had anticipated a house-to-house search by U.N. troops of the various compounds in the two-block area but not an American air attack on the houses.
When the ground troops moved in, they quickly cordoned off the neighborhood with armored vehicles and barbed-wire barricades. But the troops soon found themselves surrounded and under heavy attack by Aidid loyalists and militia firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The militia apparently scattered into small bands that attacked U.N. troop positions with surprising ferocity.
The U.N. troops fought back, supported by U.S. Cobra helicopters firing .50-caliber machine guns and blasting militia sniper positions with TOW missiles. The result was a sometimes deafening street battle fought on the ground and from the air. Militia machine-gun reports were answered by deadly blasts from the helicopter gunships, or by Pakistanis firing belt-fed machine guns from fortified positions behind sandbag barricades.