MOGADISHU, Somalia — A Marine testified Friday that he shot two Somali teen-agers in self-defense, saying foreign troops must view every Somali on the street as a potential threat.
Gunnery Sgt. Harry Conde, testifying on the last day of a two-day hearing to decide whether he faces a court-martial, compared the soldiers' feelings to those of U.S. troops in Vietnam who feared civilians were armed.
"Some people want us here. Some people don't. When you're out there, you can't tell," said the 33-year-old radar technician, who is based at Camp Pendleton.
Asked if he views every Somali on the street as a threat, Conde replied: "Yes. How many times in Vietnam did kids carry (explosives) into a village?"
U.S. forces, meanwhile, handed over operation of the southern port of Kismayu to Belgian troops.
Within hours of taking command, the Belgians came under fire while investigating shots from a refugee camp outside the city. They shot four Somalis to death, then found the body of a woman who apparently had been killed by the same four Somalis.
In the central Somali city of Belet Huen, Canadian forces opened fire on two men spotted crawling through barbed-wire toward a building housing two helicopters. One was killed and the other wounded.
And in Mogadishu, Marines shot a man who was spotted aiming a gun at their checkpoint from a hotel known as a hide-out for snipers. He was in critical condition with a stomach wound.
Despite the daily violence, Col. Fred Peck, the U.S. military spokesman, said security has improved dramatically since the coalition troops arrived on Dec. 9 to safeguard food shipments in the famine-ravaged country.
"It is much safer today," he said. "You don't see weapons on the street. We think we have made remarkable progress, (but) there are going to continue to be outbreaks of violence in Somalia for the next several years."
The violence has its roots in the civil war between Somalia's rival factions and has become virtually endemic. Although thousands of weapons have been confiscated, the possibility of assault remains very real.
Conde faces charges for shooting Ahmed Abdi Omar, 13, and another teen-ager on Feb. 2 after Omar reached into the military vehicle Conde was riding in and stole his prescription sunglasses. Omar was wounded in the abdomen by buckshot pellets, and a 17-year-old bystander was hit in the arm.
At issue is whether Conde fired for fear of his safety, or if he shot while the youth was fleeing, for revenge.
Conde could be charged with the military equivalent of aggravated assault. He also is under investigation for using a confiscated weapon, contrary to orders.
If the court-martial proceeds, Conde, a 13-year veteran born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, could face up to 10 years in prison. A decision is expected within a few days.
Conde testified that he shot without aiming, in self-defense.
"We were approaching the turn," Conde testified. "The next thing I know, something covers my face. All I feel is my head go back."
"It was just an instinct, just a reaction," he said. "It was my intent to repel hostilities."