WASHINGTON -- Signaling the start of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Somalia, Defense Secretary Les Aspin said yesterday that 2,500 of the 8,200 U.S. soldiers there would leave by Christmas.
Pentagon officials said that about 1,000 soldiers are packing now and would fly home beginning later this week, including 600 members of the Second Battalion, 14th Infantry, from Fort Drum, N.Y.
The U.S. troops and firepower in Somalia were increased by President Clinton two months ago after a battle with a Somalian faction in which 18 U.S. soldiers died and 75 were wounded.
But Mr. Clinton also set March 31 as the deadline for pulling out all the U.S. troops.
Asked yesterday if the Pentagon still plans to remove all U.S. troops by that date, Mr. Aspin, speaking on the NBC News program "Meet the Press," said, "Absolutely."
After Mr. Aspin's television appearance, a senior Army official said that in addition to the infantry battalion leaving Somalia, about 1,500 logistics troops and several hundred other supporting troops, such as combat engineers, would fly home by the end of December.
The remaining 5,700 ground forces, including about 1,400 logistics troops, another infantry battalion from Fort Drum and armored forces from Fort Stewart, Ga., will be pulled out in phases from January to March.
Last week, the aircraft carrier America left the coast of Somalia, reducing the number of U.S. service men stationed offshore by 5,500.
A second carrier, the Independence, is sailing into the region, but will not be off the Somalian coast.
About 4,000 Marines and sailors remain on vessels in the area and can provide heavy firepower if needed.
Pentagon planners have planned the troop pullout to ensure that enough security remains until the end to protect U.S. forces. "We expect it to be a peaceful withdrawal, but we're prepared for it not to be," the senior Army official said.
U.S. forces continue to conduct troop maneuvers, live-fire drills and urban warfare exercises in uninhabited areas outside Mogadishu, the official said.
Military planners said dozens of chartered or military aircraft and about a half-dozen transport ships will be needed to complete the pullout.