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U.S. Patrol Opens Fire Amid Somali Protesters; 3 Hurt : Africa: 'Retaliation' for killing of 4 GIs is charged. U.N. says troops aimed into the air in tense capital.


MOGADISHU, Somalia — Three U.S. Army Humvees stopped in their tracks Thursday morning just short of Mogadishu's parade grounds, where thousands of Somalis were shouting anti-American slogans and taunting the approaching enemy.

The American commander surveyed the scene at the "Protest for Peace," a rally organized in part by supporters of outlawed Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Suddenly, the commander gave the order.

Without warning, all three armored vehicles barreled around barricades, their machine guns aimed into the hail of stones and insults that chased them. And, within seconds, gunfire erupted.

No one was killed; on that point alone, everyone agrees. But the brief, midmorning shootout on Mogadishu's angry streets and the widely varying versions that would follow showed the deep distrust between the increasingly embattled U.S.-led United Nations peacemaking force here and many Somalis, for whom the American military had restored hope just a few months ago.

The incident also highlighted the tension that has gripped U.N. soldiers and residents of the capital in the aftermath of last Sunday's early morning ambush in which four U.S. Army soldiers on a similar patrol as Thursday's were killed when a remote-controlled bomb was detonated as their Humvee passed over it.

For the Somalis who organized Thursday's "peace protest," featuring posters of U.S. helicopter gunships strafing Somali civilians under the words "Aid From America," the U.S. patrol commander's decision to drive into the crowd was an opening salvo in President Clinton's vow to take "appropriate action" to avenge the ambush.

"This was a provocation," said Abdullah Hassan, one of the protest's organizers, who insisted that at least three Somali civilians were wounded in the shootout. "This is the retaliation Clinton . . . said would come."

"Absolutely not," countered the U.N. military spokesman in Somalia, U.S. Army Maj. David Stockwell. "It was not to provoke. It was not to break up a rally."

Stockwell said the patrol commander "apparently was wrong" in judging that his small convoy could pass through the crowd of about 3,000 unmolested; feeling threatened, he had ordered the patrol merely to fire into the air. Perhaps Somali gunmen in the crowd had inflicted the wounds on their own people, the spokesman suggested.

"We have seen that before," Stockwell said of Somali gunmen who he insisted were in the crowd and had fired at the Humvees as they passed. "These are not trained soldiers. We know in the past that they have fired into their own group . . . and those shots likely caused those casualties."

The three casualties were presented to the half-dozen foreign journalists in Mogadishu within minutes of the incident, in what has become standard practice after U.N. shooting incidents. A group of Somalis brought them to the gate of the journalists' hotel.

The grim display did nothing to clarify the incident but it was a vivid example of how dangerous, unpredictable and increasingly remote the mood is on Mogadishu's streets. The change has occurred amid the aerial assaults and ambushes that began soon after the U.S. Marines handed over command of the multinational humanitarian operation to the United Nations three months ago.

Only a few Western reporters and photographers remain here after an enraged Somali mob beat four Western journalists to death after a devastating U.S. air strike on an Aidid stronghold last month. They venture out of their hotel cautiously and then only accompanied by hired armed guards.

So now, Somalis attempt to bring evidence of U.N. or U.S. wrongdoing to the journalists' doorstep. Each evening, the alleged incidents are reported on a clandestine radio station that Aidid continues to operate in defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution ordering his arrest and offering a $25,000 reward for his capture.

For its part, the United Nations presents its case at daily briefings inside its heavily guarded, sprawling command compound. They are scheduled to end before sundown, so that journalists can return to their hotel a few miles away before darkness falls and the streets become too dangerous for all but a few Somalis.

Gunfire and mortar rounds directed toward the U.N. compound often punctuate those evening hours. But even during daylight, U.N. military patrols are rarely seen on streets that once teemed with patrolling Marines and soldiers from other nations.

Stockwell confirmed Thursday that U.N. troop movements outside the U.N. compound and the international airport have been sharply curtailed since Sunday's ambush. But even before that, the United Nations appeared to have tacitly ceded control of Mogadishu's streets to the bandits and clan gunmen who had ruled the capital and paralyzed international relief operations before the Marines of Operation Restore Hope arrived to reclaim them.

Yet more than 13,000 of the total 24,537 U.N. multinational troops now in Somalia are deployed within the city's limits.

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