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3 ITALIANS KILLED, 11 HURT IN CLASHES BETWEEN SOMALIS, U.N. TROOPS

SHARE 3 ITALIANS KILLED, 11 HURT IN CLASHES BETWEEN SOMALIS, U.N. TROOPS

Heavy fighting broke out Friday between Somali gunmen and U.N. troops searching for weapons. At least three Italian soldiers were killed and 11 were wounded, military officials said.

Four Somali police officers aiding the soldiers also were wounded, an official said. Witnesses reported at least one Somali killed and several more wounded. The fighting was the heaviest since June 17, when U.N. forces launched a ground and air assault against the headquarters of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Aidid's forces were blamed for an attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers June 5.The U.N. military spokesman, Maj. David Stockwell, said about 300 Italian soldiers searched a compound suspected of being a weapons site and encountered a roadblock when they tried to leave the Aidid-controlled zone. Somalis at the barricade began hurling rocks at the troops before opening fire, he said.

"The rocks turned into small-arms fire, and that turned into machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenades," Stockwell said.

American Cobra attack helicopters were called in and fired 20mm cannons at gunmen, he said. No U.S. casualties were reported.

Italian helicopters and tanks with 90mm guns also were used to disperse crowds of snipers, who kept troops and journalists pinned down for hours.

Friday's clash took place in an area that contained the city's main gun market and some refugee camps and residences.

For nearly two weeks, U.N. troops have been searching for weapons at suspected Aidid bases. The searches often result in clashes.

Earlier this week, two Pakistani soldiers died when they came under sniper fire while trying to search a compound where they believed weapons were stored.

Residents of refugee camps loaded their meager belongings and fled as Italian helicopter gunships hovered and snipers blasted away today. Angry Somalis threw rocks at some foreigners' vehicles.

The body of one Somali civilian was seen on the street, along with several who were wounded. Stockwell said there undoubtedly were Somali casualties, both civilians and gunmen.

The fighting followed a day of relative peace in the capital, which marked Somalia's 33rd anniversary of independence with an angry but uneventful anti-U.N. rally.

About 3,000 people gathered for the rally at July 1 Square, where they sang the national anthem and chanted anti-U.N. slogans. Banners written in English accused the United Nations operation of being a front for U.S. plans to colonize Somalia and destroy its Islamic culture.

Somalia gained independence after the merger of the northern and southern regions, ruled by Britain and Italy, respectively.