Rebels Close In on Somalia Capital

Promise of new elections is unlikely to defuse growing resentment of strong-arm military rule

WITH rebels in control of territory just 30 miles from Somalia's beleaguered capital, some critics of the government say the 21-year military regime of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre could fall within six months. Other Somali and diplomatic analysts say the opposition is so divided that General Barre's government may be able to stagger on longer than that.

``The country's fed up with having this military dictatorship,'' says Mohamoud Nur Fagadhe, a former adviser to Barre and now an open critic.

According to Somali officials, foreign diplomats, businessmen, and the rebel groups who seek Barre's ouster:

The Barre regime is losing its long grip on power. Without a negotiated settlement, casualties - especially civilian - could be high.

Democratic reforms promised by Barre are too late to be credible to most Somalis. The rebels demand a new constitution and free elections.

Barre, once popular with many Somalis, is now widely despised for running a government dominated by his own family and for dividing the country as a means of retaining power.

``He's going down,'' says a Western diplomat here of Barre. How long he can last is not certain, he adds.

Barre's government can last ``at most four to five months,'' says Mohammed Ibrahim Egal, a former prime minister, who was jailed for 15 years by Barre.

``Already the country is crumbling,'' said Mr. Egal. ``Urban lawlessness is really getting out of hand: Arms are being sold openly in the streets.''

In recent weeks, many four-wheel-drive vehicles have been stolen at gunpoint in Mogadishu, and some drivers killed or wounded. The thefts, according to Somali and diplomatic sources, are the work of rebels, bandits, or government soldiers who subsequently sell the stolen vehicles to rebels.

Other street crimes have soared recently, too, as more people acquire arms on the black market. Somali government critics say some arms are being sold by hungry, low-paid soldiers.

``It's building toward anarchy,'' Egal says.

The concern among many Somalis here is that if war breaks out in Mogadishu, civilian casualties will be extremely high.

A woman who identified herself as a member of the United Somali Congress (USC), the rebel group now in control of areas only 30 miles from the capital, fears Barre ``will burn the city'' before giving up. She claims the USC already has many rebels in the city and controls some outlying neighborhoods.

In recent months, Barre has allowed a new degree of public criticism. But a crackdown against suspected opponents in the city is likely, and it could be ruthless, predicts an international source here.

The USC is divided, USC sympathizers and diplomatic sources say, over whether or not to attack the capital. Many USC supporters own businesses in the city and don't want them to be destroyed.

Meanwhile, with rebels in control of much of the rural north, most key towns in this central region, and parts of the south, some joke Barre is little more than ``the mayor of Mogadishu.''

Barre has promised a new constitution and multiparty elections next year, in an apparent last-ditch effort to bolster his support.

Prime Minister Mohamed Hawadle Madar recently told foreign reporters: ``All Somalia people will be allowed to form political parties.''

``We don't want our people to fight,'' he continued. ``We don't want civil war. Everything is open. The president has only two years to go'' before the next presidential elections.

But after years of iron-grip rule, and a record of long imprisonments, tortures, and executions strongly condemned by international human rights organizations, Barre's credibility with most Somalis is almost zero.

The Barre government ``has not in the least moderated its stance, in fact it has intensified killings - mass killing and repression,'' claims Mr. Nur.

Nur cited two recent examples. At the airport, a senior police official fired into a crowd surging forward to meet a plane and killed several civilians. Similarly, at an open air market, soldiers fired into a crowd, killing a number of people.

Somali and international sources confirmed the incidents, although doubt exists about the identity of those opening fire at the market.

Barre is ``serious'' about democratic reforms, however, says an international source, but he ``sees them as a way of legitimizing his hold on power.''

The president has not always been so widely despised as today.

``For the first few years ... he was doing a fine job,'' says Ibrahim Megag Samater, head of the Somali National Movement (SNM), the rebel group now in control of much of the rural north. Speaking by phone from the United States, he said Barre later began ``gradually putting everything in his own hands and created a secret police.''

In his early years, Barre boosted Somali literacy, primary education, passed social programs and laws benefiting women, built roads, and provided access to electricity, says Ahmed Samatar in his new book ``Socialist Somalia: Rhetoric and Reality.''

But Mr. Samatar blames Barre, who came to power in a military coup in 1969, for failing to improve human rights and rural life, and to develop agriculture.

Northerners have long felt neglected by the government and increasingly discriminated against, politically and economically, as Barre drew the reins of power tighter and installed family members in most key posts.

Barre became ``a master'' at playing one clan or faction against another, says a Western diplomat.

But, says Egal: ``We have more that unites us [language, race, culture, Islam] than divides us.

``If Mohamed Siad [Barre] goes,'' he adds, ``it wouldn't take a year ... to form a nation.''

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