MOGADISHU, Somalia — A strike force of 1,800 Camp Pendleton-based U.S. Marines swept ashore here before dawn today, taking over the airport and port and launching a humanitarian mission that will bring at least 28,000 American servicemen to this chaotic, famine-racked African nation over the holidays.
The troops, deployed from a flotilla in the Indian Ocean, were ferried ashore by helicopters, Hovercraft and amphibious assault vessels, escorted by armed Cobra choppers that filled the gray, cloudy skies.
Analysts described the start of the U.S.-led Operation Restore Hope as a textbook military maneuver, and President Bush praised the effort. The troops--assigned to a U.N.-endorsed humanitarian mission to try to feed millions of starving Somalis--seemed to encounter little early resistance, but they did run smack into a horde of curious journalists.
When the main Marine force began to arrive, however, some Somalis came up to the troops and appeared to surrender to them. As camera crews gathered to film the action, the Somalis were ordered to lie on the ground. They later were turned over to U.N. peacekeeping forces from Pakistan who already were in Mogadishu; they were found to be airport employees and were released by an angry Brig. Gen. Ishaq Shaheen, head of the Pakistani U.N. contingent.
The Marines also encountered scattered gunfire when they raced to take control of the port area. The skirmish appeared to be minor, however, and the Marines captured some Somali gunmen and seized some weapons as they consolidated their control of the key areas of the port and airport.
Indeed, the U.S.-led forces, as they fanned out through the Mogadishu area, were making it clear that they were in control: They established roadblocks, stopped cars, searched for weapons and confiscated weapons they found on the city's streets, which were freer than usual of the roving, rival gangs.
Speed and ease seemed to mark the mission from its start. One of the first reports that it had begun was received at 12:37 p.m. Pacific time, when the Cable News Network reported that it had sighted Navy Seals coming ashore to prepare the way for the main Marine force. Moments later, CNN, using special equipment that could pierce the darkness, showed the Seals landing.
Much of the first phase of the operation, whose aim is to protect relief shipments into the country and food distribution throughout Somalia, occurred during television's prime time. TV crews from around the globe were stationed in Mogadishu and provided peculiar, unprecedented broadcast coverage of the Marine mission.
As the small reconnaissance unit slipped into the sleeping Somali capital just after midnight today, for example, it met not a hostile force but an army of photographers and camera crews.
Under a full moon, in a narrow cove adjacent to the international airport, the troops hauled in two inflatable rafts filled with their equipment-laden packs. Their every movement was recorded by a mob of camera crews who had camped out on the beachhead in anticipation of their arrival.
The troops scurried across the beach toward bunkers as photographers and camera crews chased them through the dunes and brush, attempting to interview the stone-faced, greasepainted men. The only time they reacted was when they heard a single, distant gunshot--it was just part of the random, occasional small-arms fire that is common in Mogadishu.
After receiving some brief, intense and obviously bewildering attention, which included at least one CBS television report from a bunker, the troops dug in and refused to acknowledge the journalists, who then left them alone.
But when the main Marine force, dispatched from a three-ship amphibious flotilla stationed a mile from the beach, began to land, they were clearly stunned to find their beachhead already taken by hundreds of cameramen from around the world.
"Get out of the way, get out of the way!" shouted one Marine, as he tried to steer his bulky amphibious assault vehicle over a 10-foot sand dune through television floodlights and scrambling photographers.
The massive press contingent, which appeared to have delayed the Marines' arrival, remained on the dunes between the beach and the airport runway, despite a desperate plea from a Marine captain, who suddenly appeared out of the darkness to warn: "It's not going to be a pretty sight down here. . . . We don't want to see anyone injured.
"This is literally a three-ring circus on this beach right now," he added, grumbling, "None of us anticipated this."
In Southern California, the extensive, almost-surreal, live television coverage of the operation allayed fears of Marine families who gathered to watch at Camp Pendleton's Headquarters Enlisted Club. The coverage let them share the experience of their loved ones on the Somali mission.
But it also prompted criticism that echoed complaints voiced by top military officials about intrusive media coverage.