WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration is sending a contingent of Army commandos to Somalia to help reinforce the U.S. quick-reaction force there and to underscore U.N. resolve to stand up to fugitive warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, U.S. officials said Monday.
The force, with just under 400 Rangers, members of the Army's elite light-infantry paratroop units, is expected to arrive in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, imminently. Officials declined to disclose a specific time, citing concerns about the troops' security.
The officials insisted that the commando units, whose deployment was requested by the United Nations, were issued their orders Saturday and are not being sent in reaction to an incident Sunday in which six American soldiers in Mogadishu were wounded by a remote-controlled bomb.
They also asserted that the Rangers are not being dispatched specifically to hunt down Aidid, who has been the object of a U.N. manhunt since allegedly masterminding an attack that killed 24 Pakistani peacekeeping soldiers in June. Militiamen loyal to Aidid were blamed for Sunday's attack.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials conceded that the deployment of the extra troops was made necessary by the guerrilla attacks mounted by Aidid, which in recent weeks have resulted in the deaths of four U.S. soldiers and the wounding of about a dozen others.
They said they also hoped that the arrival of additional commando units will demonstrate to Aidid both U.S. and U.N. resolve. U.S. officials had become fearful in recent weeks that Aidid's success in eluding U.N. forces had convinced him that the allies were in disarray and their effort about to collapse.
The Administration also has been plagued by reports that the United States was about to pull its forces out of Somalia, a suggestion that officials at every level repeatedly have denied. The Pentagon has said U.S. forces will remain in Somalia at least through 1994.
The 400 or so Rangers will join an existing force of 1,200 well-equipped combat troops from the 10th Mountain Light Infantry Division of Ft. Drum, N.Y. The United States also has about 3,900 other Army troops in Somalia, most of them engaged in logistics duties.
Attacks by Aidid loyalists were sporadic earlier this summer but have intensified in recent weeks and increasingly have been directed at Americans. Since the United States sent forces to Somalia last December, eight Americans have been killed.
U.S. strategists have attributed Aidid's hostility to U.S. and U.N. forces to a growing apprehension by the former Somali general that he would be effectively barred from power as a result of the U.N. peacekeeping effort. He has regarded himself as the rightful leader of Somalia.
Aidid initially welcomed U.S. troops, hoping that if he cooperated as long as the Americans were present he would be permitted to become the next president of Somalia. But he changed tactics quickly after May 4, when the United Nations took over.
Officials said Monday that the request for the United States to send additional combat troops to Somalia had been on the table for several weeks, apparently after a personal appeal by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
It was only in mid-June--barely two weeks after the alleged Aidid-ordered attack against the Pakistanis--that the United States launched a series of major air and ground strikes against Aidid's headquarters and military arsenals in Mogadishu.
Besides the 5,100 American soldiers, about 24,000 troops from 22 other nations are involved in the U.N. operation in Somalia.
U.S. officials have been conceding that the attacks by Aidid's militiamen have been a political setback for the United Nations. Although the humanitarian relief effort has been successful in most of Somalia, the trouble in south Mogadishu has grabbed most of the attention.
The recent deaths of the four U.S. servicemen have prompted calls from some members of Congress for withdrawal of all American forces from Somalia.