BARDERA, Somalia (AP) _ A reinforced battalion of 750 American Marines swept into the central town of Bardera today, bringing a Christmas Eve present of hope to thousands of starving people.

Two companies of French Foreign Legionnaires and one company of Marines were approaching still another vital aid distribution center, Hoddur, and planned to enter it at sunup on Christmas.

Col. Fred Peck, the Marine spokesman, told reporters in Mogadishu that Bardera was secured by the battalion from the 7th Regimental Combat Team about 4 p.m.

The 120-mile trip took nearly 10 hours along a rutted, dusty road in temperatures of more than 100 degrees. The Marines were greeted at sundown by a small crowd of cheering children.

The well-armed convoy was one of two that rumbled out of Baidoa after dawn. It headed south from Baidoa, while the joint French-American force went north toward Hoddur.

In Mogadishu, meanwhile, Marines set up roadblocks and began checking Somali vehicles for guns, reintroducing a get-tough approach on weapons that they abandoned a few days after their arrival on Dec. 9.

The United States suffered its first casualty of Operation Restore Hope just outside Bardera on Wednesday when a civilian Army employee was killed by an anti-tank mine during a scouting mission.

Three State Department security officers were hurt in the blast.

As they did in Baidoa and Mogadishu, the Marines and Legionnaires were to secure Bardera and Hoddur to protect aid convoys from the bandits and clan militiamen who have ruled the towns with guns for weeks.

Famine across Somalia has claimed 350,000 lives and is threatening 2 million more.

The Bardera convoy, preceded by mine-sweepers, included 20 heavily armed amphibious fighting machines and dozens of humvees mounted with light and heavy machine guns and TOW missiles. Helicopter gunships provided air cover.

A motley caravan of reporters in cars, vans and utility vehicles followed the Marine battalion.

The Marines set up camp at the town's dirt airstrip and were to begin extending their control over the town of about 6,000. About 8,000 displaced people live in a camp just outside the town.

Hoddur is closer to Baidoa than Bardera, but the joint French-American force was taking a roundabout route to avoid mines on the main road. It planned to camp 20 miles outside Hoddur tonight, then move into the town at sunup.

In Mogadishu, weapons searches were the order of the day.

The two rival warlords who control the divided halves of Mogadishu moved their heavy weaponry out of the capital earlier this week, and residents were warned that any remaining armed vehicles were at risk.

Shortly after the first Marines came ashore in Mogadishu, they and the French set up roadblocks in some parts of the city and began confiscating weapons found in vehicles.

But the roadblocks came down after a van loaded with Somali civilians lost its brakes, ran a checkpoint and was fired on by both French and American troops. Two Somalis were killed and seven injured.

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali wants all of Somalia's roving gunmen disarmed. But Washington says its responsibility is only to disarm gunmen who threaten their role of delivering food.

Washington hopes a conventional U.N. peacekeeping force will swiftly replace the U.S. troops.

Today at the United Nations, officials said Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's staff was drafting plans to gradually take over the Somalia relief operation from the U.S.-led task force. No timetable date has been set for the changeover in command of Operation Restore Hope, said one diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

President Bush hopes to start pulling Americans out of Somalia next month, and military officials indicate their goals here are being quickly met.

In fact, Robert Johnston, the Marine general in charge of U.S. forces in Somalia, says the operation is going so well it may take fewer U.S. troops than the 28,000 originally planned to complete the task.

''We would always, in any military operation, reassess the requirements to perform the mission,'' Johnston said Wednesday.

But one senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition he not be identified, said Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was concerned that Johnston's statement about scaling back the deployment may raise hopes too high.

The official said Powell believes there still are too many uncertainties.