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Aidid Forces Helped by U.N. Delays in Somalia, Familiarity

June 21, 1993

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) _ The Moroccans were there to back up the Pakistanis. The French were called to help the Moroccans. The Americans were trying to somehow tie it all together on the ground.

In the end, soldiers from all four contingents found themselves pinned on a stretch of road the length of six football fields that became a death trap in Thursday’s U.N. onslaught against militia leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

A look at the fighting that killed five U.N. soldiers shows they were up against much more than a wily warlord.

Aidid’s familiarity with the terrain, the use of civilians as shields, delays in firing on a sniper-filled hospital and the ability of militiamen to organize themselves quickly played a part in the nearly 12-hour nightmare.

So did the surprising commitment of Aidid supporters, who fought to the death and even tried stopping tanks with rifle fire as troops closed in.

Of the five U.N. soldiers killed Thursday, four died and 36 were wounded along the 600-yard cauldron as troops tried to force gunmen out of Digfer Hospital, a cemetery, a water tower and several multistory buildings.

As troops fought gunmen at one site, Aidid’s forces would attack from another, said Maj. Tim Knigge, one of the American liaison officers assigned to help the various contingents.

″All day, it was back and forth,″ said Knigge, who was with the Moroccans. ″Every time we tried to put our heads up or to the side, we were sniped at.″

The Moroccans’ mission was to protect the north flank of a 16-square-block area where Pakistani troops were battling to seize Aidid’s headquarters.

By 6:30 a.m., about an hour after ground troops had moved into the area, the 250-man Moroccan contingent was facing crowds led by women and children advancing from the area around Digfer Hospital, a four-story structure overlooking a vast field that gave gunmen a clear shot at the Moroccans.

Tear gas dispersed the initial crowds, but by then an organized assault from all directions was under way. It quickly became clear backup was needed, and about 200 French troops were sent into what looked like a no-win situation.

Knigge said first the Moroccan and then the French commander asked permission to fire on Digfer Hospital, but U.N. officials wanted assurances they would fire only at specific targets inside.

But with gunfire and grenades coming from all directions, the Moroccans and French were unable to study the building long enough to give the United Nations the specifics it demanded.

At another militia strongpoint, a Muslim cemetery, troops were hampered by a nearby refugee camp that was in the line of fire, Knigge said.

Helicopters provided air cover but couldn’t fire because of the danger of hitting the camp or the U.N. troops.

Eventually, diversionary tactics came into play. As a Cobra helicopter flew low to draw snipers’ attention, ground troops popped up from behind their vehicles and hit the snipers.

At 2 p.m., after a French armored personnel carrier had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from Digfer, the United Nations gave troops permission to fire at the hospital.

Even then, they were told to use only small arms, and the French commander ordered them to fire only at the top floor and the roof of the hospital, said Capt. Mike Keleher, the liaison officer with the French contingent.

By this time, 34 of the 65 vehicles along the U.N.-occupied road had been destroyed by grenades or machine-gun fire. The Moroccan commander, Col. Abdulla Bin Namus, was bleeding to death from two wounds suffered in separate attacks. His translator was badly injured.

The two were the only English-speakers among the Moroccans there, leaving Knigge to try to communicate with the others by sign language from his position 400 yards up the road.

It was another three hours before the French, who had been ordered to take over the Moroccans’ position, were told to storm Digfer. They arrived to find the building deserted, the remaining gunmen apparently having disappeared into the crowds.

While Aidid may not have known of the planned ground assault, the liaison officers said his knowledge of the area gave him a good advantage.

″This is Aidid’s neighborhood. He knows the buildings, and he knows the area,″ said Capt. Steve Stacy. ″I could protect my hometown neighborhood too.″