Fighting Rages; Foreigners Evacuated; President’s Whereabouts Unknown
MOMBASA, Kenya (AP) _ Hundreds of foreigners were plucked to safety as fighting raged Monday in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, and rebels trying to overthrow the government claimed they were on the verge of winning.
The whereabouts of embattled President Mohamed Siad Barre, who has ruled the Horn of Africa nation for 21 years, were unknown. The rebels said if he is captured alive, they will try him and he could face the death penalty.
Somali government radio, which had been off the air since Saturday, broadcast an appeal from Siad Barre urging the rebels to agree to peace talks under Italian and Egyptian mediation.
But the broadcast was identical to an appeal aired last week, raising suspicions it was taped earlier.
In Abu Dhabi, diplomatic sources said Siad Barre’s family had fled to the United Arab Emirates and was seeking asylum. The sources initially said Siad Barre was with them, but later said it was unclear.
A spokeswoman for the Somalian Embassy in London said some of the president’s distant relatives were on the plane, but not his immediate family. The spokeswoman, S.A. Musse, said Siad Barre was not on the plane.
Rebel spokesman Abdirahem Mohammed said in Rome that if captured alive, Siad Barre would be tried.
″If in the extreme case he is found innocent, he will be become an innocent civilian and be free to leave or participate in political activity,″ he said in a telephone interview.
The rebels have repeatedly rejected calls for negotiations with Siad Barre, a former army commander who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1969. The rebels, Western government and human rights organizations have accused him of widespread atrocities.
In Rome, the rebel United Somali Congress issued a statement claiming the insurgents could win control ″within hours, maybe late in the night.″
The rebels, who began their offensive on Dec. 30, said they had captured the commander of anti-aircraft batteries in the city and that the area controlled by the government was ″getting smaller and smaller.″
The rebels say their political program is to form a democratic government based on a multiparty system and some form of regional and district autonomy.
They say more than 1,500 people have been killed and several thousand wounded in the fighting.
Italian planes flew about 250 people out of Somalia on Monday, continuing a rescue effort begun Saturday. In it, more than 400 people were evacuated from Mogadishu in separate Italian, American and French operations.
Saturday’s effort was cut short by heavy fighting, which prevented any rescues on Sunday. Foreigners who made their way out on Monday described the city as littered with bodies and filled with smoke from bombardments.
They traveled out aboard two Italian military planes that flew 560 miles from Mombasa, Kenya. The planes spent only 20 minutes on the ground, the Italian Foreign Ministry said.
The evacuees included 57 Italians, 30 Somalis related to Italians, 75 other Somalis and 86 people of other nationalities, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement in Rome.
Twenty-one Red Cross workers also were taken out of Mogadishu early Monday on a French warship.
Capt. Massimo Scoletta, a co-pilot of a C-130 used in the evacuation, said more than 200 people were left behind at the airport. He said he would probably make another flight Tuesday.
″We hope tomorrow will be more quiet because today ws terrible,″ he said.
On approach to Mogadishu, he said, the crew saw a ″big column of smoke right by the airport″ and learned by radio from Italian Embassy officials in Kenya that the situation in the Somali capital was ″critical.″
At the airport, Scoletta said, ″We saw many, many people with guns.″
The rebels, who draw their support from the large, central Hawiye clan, said Sunday that they had launched a major assault on the airport, using reinforcements from the countryside.
The rebels had pledged earlier to stop fighting until all foreigners had left.
One evacuee, businessman Abdullahi Daib, said the government began shelling the capital Sunday with multiple-rocket launchers.
″It’s a no-man’s land in Mogadishu,″ said Daib, a Somali who holds a Canadian passport. ″People are getting killed not only by cannons and rockets but by bullets that literally fall out of the sky.″
He said he had seen bodies rotting in the streets in the northwest suburbs and near one of the city’s central squares. Government forces controlled the presidential palace, state radio and the airport, ″but not much else,″ he said.
A seven-member team of French and Belgian doctors from the Doctors Without Borders relief group flew into Mogadishu aboard one of the evacuation flights from Mombasa and planned to establish a hospital to treat casualties from both sides, said Thierry Durand, the agency’s representative in Kenya.
During his presidency, Siad Barre maneuvered Somalia through shifting alliances with the Soviets and the United States.
The United States had been his primary backer since the late 1970s, but cut nearly all of its aid in recent years following increasing reports of human rights abuses.