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LATEST U.S. MISSION TO SOMALIA IS A SORRY END TO A NOBLE GOAL

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THE PROSPECT OF U.S. TROOPS evacuating U.N. peacekeepers from Bosnia has receded, for the moment at least, but another hazardous rescue mission looms.

President Clinton has promised 3,000 Marines to safeguard the extraction of the last peacekeepers in Somalia, who are supposed to be out of there by the end of March.Most of the Marines will stand by on Navy vessels offshore, to be deployed only if needed, but "several hundred" - to quote Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch - will land at Mogadishu to protect the departing U.N. soldiers and make sure their equipment does not fall into Somali hands.

It will not be an easy withdrawal.

Clan warfare has resumed with full fury since U.S. and European troops pulled out of Somalia last March. Some 15,000 peacekeepers from Egypt, India, Pakistan and Malaysia have tried to hold things together, but they are outgunned by the militias and retreating under fire.

Clan chiefs negotiated a cease-fire, but clashes resumed this week. The shelling, mortar and machine gun fire has been so intense it forced repeated closures of the Mogadishu airport.

Marauding gunmen have made it too dangerous to distribute relief supplies in the countryside. Most private charities have pulled out of Somalia, and the few aid workers left are all in Mogadishu. They wear flak jackets and helmets, just like the U.N. soldiers, and count on leaving when the peacekeepers do.

U.N. officials estimate the number of refugees in Somalia has swelled to 400,000, almost as many as there were when President George Bush launched "Operation Restore Hope" in December 1991.

Now, three years and $3 billion later, it is "Operation Abandon Hope." And the return of U.S. troops - if only to secure a withdrawal - may goad the Somalis into spilling more American blood before they continue with their own civil war.

But Clinton says sending the Marines is "the right thing to do." And even his harshest congressional critics agree that we owe the Third World soldiers who replaced us when we lost the stomach to remain in Somalia.

It is the right thing to do - but a sorry ending for something we started with such noble goals.