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Withdrawal of Big Powers Troubles Forces in Somalia

AFRICAN and other third-world nations serving with the United Nations mission in Somalia express concern about the country's prospects after the big guns leave.

``The questions being asked back at home at the moment are like why should we stay and face death when powerful, far-richer nations with the capability to do things are leaving?'' a commander of an African contingent said. ``One shot at us, or even one death from militia activity, and we are out of this place.''

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Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Botswana, Zambia, and Uganda are among the African states that have sent troops to Somalia to try to contain interclan fighting that destroyed the economy and exacerbated a famine.

Western states form the backbone of the 29,000-strong UN force. After 18 United States troops were killed in an Oct. 3 firefight with supporters of Somali warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, President Clinton decided to withdraw all US forces by March 31. France, Belgium, Italy, and Germany followed suit, and are preparing to leave with all their airpower and ground armor. Troops from some Asian and European countries plan to remain.

UN commanders worry that without the logistics, armor, and equipment provided by the US and other Western nations, the remaining UN mission would collapse and Somalia would plunge back into civil war. They say they are worried by talk that Somalia's warring factions are rearming and regrouping.

``The UN military operation will be left virtually naked and completely vulnerable to militia attacks,'' one UN military officer said. ``Unless equipment, particularly air power, can be replaced quickly, the whole operation risks being thrown off course or completely collapsing.''

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