WASHINGTON — The State Department has authorized the evacuation of all U.S. diplomats and private American citizens in Somalia because of heavy fighting between government and rebel forces, it was announced today.
Deputy spokesman Richard Boucher said a task force is examining ways to carry out the evacuation to ensure the safety of the departing Americans.
There are 37 official Americans and fewer than 50 private Americans in Somalia, he said. Hundreds of Somalis are reported dead in four days of fighting.
In effect, the evacuation decision means the U.S. Embassy will be shut down.
Three weeks ago, the department ordered the evacuation of non-essential personnel and dependents from the embassy.
Boucher described the situation in Somalia as confused.
"It is impossible to say which side has the upper hand or which forces are in control of what location," Boucher said.
The United States has long been closely identified with the government of President Mohamed Siad Barre, but it terminated new economic support programs in 1989 because of human rights violations.
Somalian refugees arriving in Kenya to escape the fighting in their homeland today told of fierce fighting between rebels and troops loyal to Siad Barre.
Hundreds of Somalians were reported dead in four days of fighting, many of them civilians. Rebels are seeking an end to the pro-Western president's 21-year rule.
Telecommunications with the nation of 8 million were cut Tuesday. The rebels claimed they had cornered Siad Barre in his bunker at the airport, where he reportedly has been living for several months as the capital, Mogadishu, slipped further into anarchy.