WASHINGTON — THE beleaguered government of Somalia is shopping the globe for arms as it attempts to stave off mutinies throughout the country. Most notably, the Somalis have gone back to their former superpower patron - the Soviet Union - with hat in hand. On Aug. 14, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov received Brig. Gen. Maslah Mohamed Siad, Somali chief of staff and son of President Mohamed Siad Barre. It is doubtful that he came away with much.
General Maslah, who is a top contender to succeed his elderly father, was also recently in Libya looking for more weaponry. Officials in the United States government, which aids Somalia and has strategic interests there, say reports earlier this year of Libyan arms deliveries to Somalia are credible. Official Somali delegations have also been shopping for weapons in South Africa, Spain, and Chile.
The trips are a sign of how desperate the Siad Barre regime has become since a bloody civil war started in the north in May 1988. Somali soldiers and police have become increasingly unwilling to shoot fellow Somalis, and have been deserting in growing numbers. According to the Kenyan press, armed rebels have now seized the main crossing point into Kenya, leading some 6,000 Somalis to flee there. US officials do not disagree with assessments that President Siad Barre does not control much of the country beyond the capital of Mogadishu.
``The security forces are out of control; there are mutinies all over the place,'' says a US State Department official. ``The political institutions are inoperative almost to the point where we don't feel as if we're dealing with a government anymore.''
Somalis throughout the country are reportedly buying arms from soldiers and hunkering down in preparation for what they see as a final showdown between Siad Barre's forces and the growing opposition. Rumors that Siad Barre is considering handing over authority to Maslah have been circulating for months. But Somali expatriates in the West doubt Siad Barre would ever voluntarily give up power, which he seized 20 years ago.
US officials, who say they would like to help the Somalis as friends, say they have run out of ideas. With Siad Barre's family- and clan-based regime becoming increasingly isolated, the situation has gone beyond the point where the US could exercise leverage to get the government to initiate a process of national reconciliation, officials say.
US development projects in Somalia continue, but new US aid has been frozen because of widely alleged human rights violations. The US military program has been scaled back as well, though the US continues to use the military facilities in the northern port of Berbera, mainly for jet refueling. Now, US officials say they are considering scaling back the program even further, though they have not determined in which areas. Possibilities include a reduction in military advisers and in military exercises off Somalia due to take place in October.
If General Maslah and his entourage - which included the commanders of the Somali Navy, Air Defense Force, and Air Force - thought they would throw a scare into their American backers by traveling to Moscow, it appears not to have worked. US officials and other informed observers doubted the Soviets would oblige with arms donations that it cannot afford financially and does not want to afford politically. Since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the Soviets have been pulling back from third-world hot spots.
``I don't think the Soviets want in in Somalia,'' a US official says.
In the 1970s, Somalia was in the Soviet camp and neighboring Ethiopia had US support. But war between the two nations in 1977-78 led them to reverse orientations. Nevertheless, the Soviets and Somalis have maintained low-key relations. The Soviets have lately become more active there in the fields of culture and education.
``This doesn't bother the US at all,'' says the US official. ``The argument that that is a foot in the door sounds a little tattered.''
Until last month, Somalia was beginning to show some signs that it was responding to outside complaints about human rights violations. The regime freed large numbers of political prisoners, and it allowed a team of investigators from Amnesty International to visit. But a bloody confrontation on July 13 between Muslim worshippers and government forces left at least 450 people dead and was followed by massive arrests and summary executions, according to the human rights group Africa Watch.
The government denies the executions, but the Bush administration found the reports credible enough to issue a warning to the ambassador here and to officials in Mogadishu.