WASHINGTON -- At least five U.S. soldiers were killed and several were wounded yesterday when a Somalian militia shot down two Army Blackhawk helicopters during United Nations military operations in Mogadishu, Pentagon officials said.
About 20 members of a faction led by a fugitive Somalian warlord, Gen. Mohammad Farah Aidid, were taken into custody during the operations, including a high-ranking associate of the militia leader, the Pentagon said.
The operations continued into the night, and Pentagon officials cautioned that details, including the numbers of people killed and wounded, might change as more reports were received.
Earlier in the day, three U.S. Marines were wounded and a Somalian employee was killed when their lightly armored vehicle was blown up by a remotely controlled mine in Mogadishu, the Somalian capital.
Taken together, the casualties were the worst suffered in a single day by the U.S. military in the East African country. The losses come at a time when Congress and the Clinton administration are considering reducing the U.S. presence in Somalia and reorienting its mission toward fostering a stable political system there.
The two Blackhawk helicopters were shot down over Mogadishu about 3:45 p.m. Somalian time, a few hours after the mine explosion involving the vehicle, and the two incidents did not appear to be directly related.
Somalian gunmen sprayed the vehicle with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades after blowing up the mine, Pentagon officials said.
A Blackhawk helicopter rescued the wounded Marines, coming under fire but leaving safely as troops of the United Arab Emirates, also under U.N. command, returned fire.
On Sept. 25, three Americans were killed when an Army Blackhawk helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed. It was the first time a Somalian gunmen downed a U.N. helicopter.
Four U.S. soldiers were killed Aug. 8 when a mine explosion tore apart their utility vehicle.
Earlier yesterday, legislators and Clinton administration officials debated on news programs whether the time had come to withdraw.
"I think we ought to leave now," said Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat, on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, disagreed.
"I don't think we ought to get out," he said on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley." "I don't believe in simply getting out. I don't believe in setting a date and saying we're going to get out by December the 1st."
President Clinton issued a written statement expressing sympathy for the families of those who were killed and wounded but defended the role of the military in Somalia.
"These Americans were engaged in a vital humanitarian mission to prevent the recurrence of mass deaths that resulted from the anarchy and famine in Somalia," he said.
"The international effort in Somalia has succeeded in bringing order to most of the country. These positive developments must not be lost because of the unwillingness of a few who reject the peaceful political process and seek to achieve power by force."
Defense Secretary Les Aspin, also appearing on "Face the Nation," said: "The trick is going to be to be able to withdraw those forces in a way in which at least enough security remains behind so that the famine does not return, and that's what we're wrestling with."
About 4,400 U.S. troops are in Somalia as part of a 27,000-member U.N. force.
The Americans involved in the roundup of General Aidid's loyalists yesterday were from the Rangers, a team of specially trained soldiers sent to Somalia after the Aidid faction stepped up its attacks on U.N. troops.
Last week the House and the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution calling on Mr. Clinton to seek congressional authorization by Nov. 15 to continue to deploy troops to Somalia.