IN a significant shift in strategy, United States Marines say they are prepared to go after and seize heavy weapons hidden by gangs that have terrorized relief operations in Somalia for nearly two years.
In this riverside town where thousands have starved over the past two years in a famine mostly caused by civil war and anarchy, Marine Col. Buck Beddard, who is in charge of the forces here, told the Monitor that "all crew-served weapons [high-caliber machine guns and even artillery used by gangs] are to be confiscated," along with their vehicles.
"We'll go after them," he added, in response to a question about hidden arms caches.
Until now, the marines have limited themselves to seizing weapons openly displayed and considered hostile. But armed gangs have simply resorted to hiding their weapons, sometimes not many miles from the towns secured by the marines.
Somalis and Western relief workers, arguing that the limited weapons-seizure plan was not enough to ensure the safety of relief deliveries after the US-led forces withdraw from Somalia, pleaded for a more aggressive weapons policy.
"If the Americans come here only for humanitarian assistance, that will not do," says Bardera resident Abdi Mohamed Egal, an unemployed journalist. "The only security can be if the guns are gathered up."
On at least two occasions, marines have been fired on by Somalis - on Christmas near the coastal town of Afgoi, and earlier, in Mogadishu. A French unit reported being fired on recently by Somalis near Baidoa.
Explaining the more aggressive weapons policy, Marine spokesman Hartman Slate says: "As troops move out into Somalia and begin to encounter the realism of Somalia, the troops, the commanders, and actions are adapting to the situation.
"The change is merely giving the commanders a little bit more latitude in what they perceive to be a threat. If I know there is a freelance `technical' [as the armed, gang-run vehicles are called] in the area, it may not be a threat now, but if I pull out, it would be," he adds.
Marine Corps Gen. Tony Zinni hinted of the new weapons policy last week in Mogadishu, the capital, when he reportedly told several journalists that the heavy arms of gangs seen on the street would be considered threatening.
But the statement here by Colonel Beddard makes it clear that even if such weapons are not "seen," an effort would be made to find the weapons the gangs have hidden.
Disarming the gangs will not be easy. They can keep shifting their hidden weapons. And some Somalis apparently overlap in their roles - sometimes looting for themselves, sometimes working as part of the armies or militias of local Somali leaders.
Somalis in Mogadishu, Baidoa, and Bardera say they know where such arms have been buried and are willing to help the marines find them. It is in their self-interest to do so: Not only have such gangs stolen massive amounts of relief food, but they have also terrorized the civilian population with a wave of street crime.
On Dec. 21, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called on the US to disarm the Somali warring factions. He also reportedly balked at a US request for the UN to begin planning to take over the safeguarding of relief operations after US troops withdraw.
Despite the new weapons strategy, the US has shown no signs of trying to disarm the main Somali armies, rather than gangs of looters, and continues to insist its operation is purely humanitarian in nature.
"The mission here is not a political one, but for relief aid," said one US official Christmas morning, as the marines were still settling into Bardera, around an unpaved airstrip, after their Dec. 24 arrival. The aim, the official said, "is not confrontation."
A lesser-known Somali general here, Ahmed Warsame, disagrees with the new strategy on confiscating weapons.
Standing on the banks of the Jubba River and drawing randomly in the sand with a wooden cane, he warns the US military not to get too aggressive in trying to disarm clan-based factions.
General Warsame says "The best thing for the marines to do is to go after the looters and thieves."
He says he had no objections to any agreements that called for the Somali armies to remove themselves to fixed positions" - or camps. But he accused the US of not being "neutral" because it is involving itself in Somalia's internal politics.
General Warsame - whose troops regained control of Bardera from Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed in October - claims the US-brokered agreement earlier this month for the withdrawal from Mogadishu of forces belonging to General Aideed and his rival, Mohamed Ali Mahdi, has simply freed Aideed's troops to launch new attacks in rural, central Somalia, and may tempt him to attack here again.
But, he added, "since they [the US] are already in politics, they should talk to all factions.
"The problem of Somalia is not only Ali Mahdi and Aideed," he says. Many foreign journalists also made such a wrong assumption, he adds.