Aid Groups in Somalia Troubled by US Plan to Withdraw

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SECURITY remains a constant preoccupation for private relief agencies helping to rebuild Somalia. Any significant reduction in the international presence there, agency officials say, could release the chaos that prevailed before United States troops arrived a year ago and reverse the progress made in food production, health services, and other critical areas.

With the March 31 US withdrawal on the calendar, aid providers are worried. A contingent of US troops helps keep the peace in the lower Scebeli valley, about 70 miles south of the capital, Mogadishu, where Save the Children has a successful agricultural project. ``Without that kind of stabilizing presence,'' says Willet Weeks, that relief agency's top official in the Horn of Africa, ``a lot of good work will get undone.''

The diverse international forces in Somalia have often proven their value. Botswanan troops in the city of Bardera, for example, are running ``one of the best peacekeeping operations anywhere,'' says Andrew Natsios, vice-president of World Vision, an interdenominational relief agency. He and Mr. Weeks were in Boston last week.

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Mr. Natsios says some warlords in Somalia are ``itching'' for March 30, but he is ``optimistic that we'll get enough soldiers from other places'' to make up for the US exit. He adds, however, that the United Nations is having trouble recruiting new peacekeepers, given Somalia's continued volatility.

Whoever remains in Somalia after the US pullout is likely to be tested by Somali military factions, Weeks says.

Last summer's UN offensive against the forces of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed sparked interclan fighting far afield of Mogadishu, Weeks says. Other clans started jockeying to fill the void that could have resulted from the threat to General Aideed's subclan, he says.

Save the Children's work in Somalia is concentrated in the lower Scebeli region. Hundreds of miles of irrigation canals have been cleared in the rich farming region, and this year's maize harvest was large. But when the clan conflicts rekindled, farmers were again cut off from markets.

One of the biggest mistakes made in Somalia, says Natsios, a frequent visitor, was the decision to cut off talks with General Aideed after the June killing of 23 Pakistani peacekeepers. The Somalis have to talk things out, he says. ``It's an obsessive need in a nomadic society.''

Current talks, sponsored by Ethiopia's government, include Aideed and are heartening to both Natsios and Weeks. But local negotiations proceeding in various parts of Somalia could prove equally important, Weeks says. As local leaders, especially the clan elders who are the chief conciliators in the country, arrange ways to support humanitarian and rehabilitation efforts, they're laying the groundwork for regional and eventually national political structures, he says.

The reconciliation process spearheaded by the elders should be supported by the international community, Weeks says, but ``very discreetly, at arm's length, to preserve their legitimacy.''

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