WASHINGTON — In the largest single loss of American life since the international community went to Somalia's rescue last December, four U.S. soldiers died Sunday when gunmen ambushed a U.N. peacekeeping convoy in Mogadishu. President Clinton pledged to take "appropriate action" against those responsible.
The soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit a land mine in southern Mogadishu and the convoy in which they were riding came under attack. There were unconfirmed reports of additional American and other U.N. casualties.
No Somali attackers were killed or wounded, a U.N. military spokesman said.
The ambush underscored the increasing difficulties faced by the multinational mission, begun last December to help feed millions of Somalis stricken by drought, famine and the tyranny of rival warlords. The mission has been unable to restore peace to the troubled East African nation despite its superiority in men and materiel.
"We will do everything we can to find out who was responsible and take appropriate action," the President told reporters as he left church here. "We have no choice but to protect our people and try to make sure the mission can succeed."
The land mine, planted in an area dominated by supporters of renegade Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, left a waist-deep, eight-foot-wide crater.
Three of the Americans were killed immediately. A fourth died at a U.S. military hospital.
The soldiers were identified as Spec. Mark Gutting, 25, of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Spec. Keith Pearson, 25, of Tavares, Fla., both of the 977th Military Police Company from Ft. Riley, Kan., and Sgt. Ronald Richerson, 24, of Portage, Ind., of the 300th Military Police Company from Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. Also killed was Sgt. Christopher Hilgert, 27, of Bloomington, Ind., also from Ft. Riley.
The attack was the third ambush of U.N. forces since Wednesday. After past assaults, U.N. forces have launched airborne attacks on suspected Aidid strongholds in southern Mogadishu.
U.N. sources said commanders in Somalia are now working out a detailed plan of action that would include a buildup of ground forces in southern Mogadishu.
But in an indication that Washington does not plan any major unilateral retaliation, the President emphasized that the Administration is consulting with the United Nations. "We'll proceed through the U.N., as our troops are there as part of the U.N.," he said.
Clinton also implied that the United States is not reconsidering its participation in the Somalia effort. "I still believe the United Nations mission was well-conceived and properly undertaken," he said.
But the attack elicited criticism of American policy from the Republican congressional leadership, which called on the Administration to reassess the U.S. role in Somalia. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said Sunday that the operation had "gotten away from our original mission" of humanitarian assistance, adding that the time "may be close" to withdraw American troops.
"We (in Congress) won't be in session for 30 days, but I'll bet there'll be some pressure on the President to do just that," Dole said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Others called for increased action rather than withdrawal. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said U.N. troops should move faster to capture Aidid.
"We shouldn't allow this cat-and-mouse game to go on in which Americans take casualties and Aidid escapes capture," Foley said on CNN's "Newsmaker Sunday."
Aidid has been on the run since shortly after the June 5 massacre of 24 Pakistani U.N. troops, allegedly by his men.
Despite a $25,000 reward for his capture, Aidid has evaded well-armed U.N. troops deployed in the impoverished nation. Troops from the United States, Europe, Asia and other African countries are now as preoccupied with maintaining law and order and dealing with clan fighting as with securing aid.
The U.N. Command, which took charge from the U.S.-led mission in May, condemned the attack Sunday as a "cowardly act" and pledged that it would not weaken the U.N. mission.
American troops are not being singled out for attack, U.N. officials told the Associated Press. But two U.S. troops were injured Thursday, again in a land mine blast when another convoy was attacked northwest of the capital. The night before, a U.S. soldier was hurt when six mortar rounds were fired into the U.S. Embassy compound in Mogadishu.
The deaths Sunday bring to eight the total number of Americans killed in Somalia since U.S. troops were sent there in December by former President George Bush. A total of 39 peacekeepers have been killed since early June.
After Somali snipers opened fire on the convoy Sunday, U.S. helicopter gunships were called in, along with American, Egyptian and Pakistani reinforcements who sealed off Mogadishu's Medina suburb. Extra troops were deployed in key sections of south Mogadishu.