U.S. troops ready to fly to Somalia if U.N. accepts Bush offer, officials say

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials said yesterday that if U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali accepts the offer of 30,000 U.S. troops for Somalia and gives the go-ahead, a rapid deployment force of 6,000 paratroopers would be ready to leave by air within 24 hours. The Army's 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., could provide as many as 12,000 more troops within a few days, they said.

The Bush administration said it is "gravely concerned" about the efforts of Somali warlords to block the distribution of food aid in famine-plagued Somalia and has offered the troops to help guarantee that supplies reach the starving.


The troop offer, broached to the United Nations Wednesday by Acting Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, awaits a response from Mr. Boutros-Ghali. He must decide whether to accept the U.S. plan and call on other nations to join the effort.

The Pentagon also said that the amphibious ship Tripoli and five companion vessels were steaming toward Somalia in the Indian Ocean with a force of 2,500 Marines -- along with 16 Harrier fighter aircraft and some helicopters -- and could arrive within three days.


Authorities said the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy also is on station in the Mediterranean and could be dispatched if needed.

Also on tap are Marine aircraft from the U.S. Marine Air Station at El Toro, Calif., which would be used to assist in case of an amphibious landing.

But officials said the United States hopes to limit its role primarily to getting the operation under way and that troops from other countries would be able to replace U.S. forces after the region was secured.

The move marked a major turnabout in U.S. policy on Somalia. Until now, the Bush administration has sought to minimize the U.S. role in Somalia. It has offered logistical support for Pakistani troops on duty as U.N. peacekeepers, but the the United States has said its personnel would not engage in direct military action.

But military authorities said that under the rules of engagement the United States has proposed, U.S. military commanders would be authorized to shoot whenever they felt their troops were threatened and would not have to wait until they were fired on before engaging hostile forces.

"This is a real change," a knowledgeable Pentagon official said yesterday. He said that if the Somali warlords did not back down quickly, as hoped, the number of troops required to continue the operation "could add up in a hurry."

Even so, sources say U.S. forces dispatched to Somalia would be used solely to secure the port and to provide escorts for food-distribution operations. They would not be expected to line distribution routes or to engage in operations throughout the Somali countryside.

It was not immediately clear whether the White House was able to notify President-elect Bill Clinton before Mr. Eagleburger made his offer.


The White House said only that Brent Scowcroft, the president's national security adviser, had discussed the plan with Mr. Clinton "within the past 24 hours."

In Little Rock, Ark., yesterday, Mr. Clinton said he supported the Bush administration's offer.

"The thing I think is so heartening is that the United States is now taking the initiative, going to the United Nations with a number of options, obviously considering pushing this more strongly," the president-elect said. "I think it is high time."

"I think the American people should be happy, and I'm glad that it's happening on Thanksgiving," he added.

Officials said that if the United States supplies the bulk of the forces for the Somali effort, as expected, the operation would be under a U.S. commander, rather than a foreigner. Washington historically has insisted that U.S. forces be under U.S. command.

Authorities said Mr. Bush's decision to offer to intervene militarily in Somalia was based on increasing evidence that Somali warlords were blocking U.N. humanitarian efforts and that unless some action was taken soon, millions of Somalis soon would die.


In Somalia, relief officials reacted cautiously to the U.S. proposal.

"This is obviously welcome news, because it would give us the ability to get food to more people who need it," said Paul Matchell, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), a major provider of relief food to the area.

But he cautioned that adding a major combat force to the welter of factional armies, bandit gangs and armed free-lance looters -- already afflicting the country "means the chance of increased violence."

Among the major worries for the WFP and other relief agencies, he said, was that "some of the sides may take out their frustrations on relief workers already in the country."