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U.S. and U.N. forces struck back before dawn Saturday at the forces of warlord Mohamed Far-rah Aidid, retaliating for last week's ambush that killed 23 Pakistani troops and crippled relief efforts.

The strike began about 4 a.m. (7 p.m. MDT Friday) with the clatter of unseen helicopters. Minutes later, the flash of rockets could be seen in at least three parts of the city.The operation was one of the largest and most aggressive since the early days of the international military mission, which was launched in December to expedite aid shipments and restore order.

Tracer bullets rose from the positions held by Aidid's forces, and the sleeping city and its buildings were briefly illuminated by brilliant white flashes.

At least two high-flying U.S. AC-130 gunships slowly circled Mogadishu, firing at will. The tracer fire had stopped an hour later, but explosions still shook the city.

There was no immediate word on casualties.

In a statement released at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Les Aspin said U.N. forces and members of the 1,200-person U.S. Quick Reaction Force took part in the operation.

The United Nations said, in a statement from New York, that the operation was authorized by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in support of a Security Council resolution.

A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the operation's targets included Aidid's radio station, his command quarters and several weapons caches.

A second phase of the operation involved ground units ordered to move in to secure certain areas of the city and search for additional weapons caches. The official declined to specify exactly how many troops might participate in the ground operation.

Last Saturday's simultaneous attacks on Pakistani troops in two locations in Mogadishu threatened anew the international effort to restore health and civil order to the famine- and anarchy-racked country.

U.N. staff and relief workers have been evacuated by the hundreds to Nairobi, Kenya, closing down relief centers and leaving countless Somalis hungry once again.

The few remaining U.N. staff were relocated to the headquarters compound.

Troops this week dug foxholesand strung barbed wire around the compound in preparation for a retaliatory attack on Aidid.

Aidid on Friday denied responsibility for the attacks on the Pakistanis, who are part of the U.N.-directed operation, which is aimed at restoring order to the country and improving its infrastructure to facilitate food shipments.

The attacks on the Pakistanis were an open challenge to the U.N. force left behind after the departure of the large, mainly U.S. Army and Marine force that had entered Somalia in December.

On Friday, the United States dispatched a 4,200-man Navy and Marine assault force that was participating in exercises in Kuwait to the lower Persian Gulf for possible intervention in Somalia.

Of the 18,000 foreign troops in Somalia, some 10,000 to 11,000 are in Mogadishu. Four French armored personnel carriers arrived in Mogadishu from Baidoa earlier this week.

Mogadishu's main airport was closed Friday night until further notice.

On Friday, the streets were even quiter than usual for the Muslim sabbath. Even the crowd in the market that sells khat, the mildly narcotic leaf widely chewed here, was a fraction of its usual size.

By contrast, the former U.S. Embassy compound that the United Nations now uses as a base was a virtual beehive.

Bulldozers cleared trees in case of an assault by militiamen. Sandbags and dirt provided protection around the electricity ganerators. Double strands of barbed wire ensured that the compound wall, already topped by broken glass, would be even more difficult to breach.

Similar preparations were under way at the airport and at the seaport, which was guarded by armored personnel carriers.

At a news conference Friday, Aidid portayed himself as a peacemaker. He said he wants "those responsible to be dealt with severely."

"Those who initiated the problems are now pointing fingers," he said.

Aidid alternated between criticizing the United Nations and saying the country still needs its help in rebounding from a year in which an estimated 350,000 people died from civil war, famine and disease.