Has Elusive Warlord in Somalia Become the UN's Favored Contact?

LAST year, he was the target of a manhunt by elite United States forces who slid down ropes at night from helicopters to try to arrest him in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. He eluded both US and United Nations soldiers for more than a year.

Today he is still sought, but by senior US diplomats and UN officials, and the UN is now assisting him in meeting with other Somali leaders, the Monitor has learned.

Speculation is also surfacing among some diplomats and private analysts that senior UN officials in Somalia have concluded that Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed is likely to become the next strongman of Somalia and will soon announce formation of a national government.

The analysts claim senior officials of the UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) have tilted in favor of General Aideed, paying more attention to him than other Somali leaders at a moment when the warlord is trying to consolidate his power.

``UNOSOM just wants someone to declare a government so they can declare victory and go home,'' says Ken Menkhaus, a former UNOSOM official and assistant professor of political science at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C.

Eugene Forson, a UN spokesman in Mogadishu, denies such favoritism and says UN officials have been ``consulting with all the [Somali] leaders,'' while paying special attention to Aideed and his rival, Mohamed Ali Mahdi.

An announcement by Aideed that he is forming a government would allow UN officials to claim they had achieved a much-sought political solution for Somalia just prior to the expected UN departure from the country later this year or early next year.

Mohamed Ahmed Muhamood, a senior official with Aideed's Somali National Alliance, told the Monitor in Belet Uen, Somalia, on Aug. 25: ``We hope to have a [national] government soon.''

But an Aideed government would likely crumble in the shifting sands of Somali politics, leaving him in charge in name only and possibly reigniting civil war, according to academic analysts, US diplomats, and others.

A US diplomat claims ``UNOSOM is getting more and more desperate for a political settlement. UNOSOM is trying to broker a deal in which Aideed can announce a government.''

The diplomat cites indications of this: Victor Gbeho, the head of UNOSOM, recently told UN agency heads to meet with Aideed, something the diplomat says Mr. Gbeho has not directed be done with other militia or faction leaders. Gbeho did not return Monitor calls.

Mr. Menkhaus, who concluded extensive interviews last week here and in Somalia with UN officials and others, says UNOSOM is now communicating mostly with faction leaders instead of also dealing with traditional elders and intellectuals.

And, he claims, UNOSOM has favored Aideed in UN-arranged meetings this year between faction leaders, allowing him a more important role than his actual political and military strength merits.

He cites as an example the UNOSOM-brokered meetings earlier this year concerning Kismayu, Somalia, in which Aideed's representatives were invited by the UN to play a major role. Yet the primary conflict was between the Ogaden and Harti ethnic groups, not Aideed's Habar-Gedir.

SOMALIA, 3-1/2 years after the overthrow of dictator Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, remains volatile and unpredictable, despite the presence of about 18,000 UN troops.

On Sept. 1, two UN Indian doctors and an Indian medical assistant were killed in a bomb blast in Baidoa, a central Somali town that until recently has been relatively peaceful. And in Buale, another central town, Pierre Anceaux, a Swiss photographer, was shot and killed at a market the same day. Since those killings, at least an additional 17 people have been killed in clashes between rival clans. And frequent battles have erupted in Mogadishu in recent months.

Also in recent months, Aideed's SNA has grabbed Merca on the coast and several towns in central Somalia, including Belet Uen, which were held by the Hawadley - an ethnic group now opposed to Aideed.

But Aideed is not as strong as he appears, analysts contend. ``I don't think the SNA can hold Belet Uen'' against expected Hawadley counterattacks, says a Westerner who has lived and worked in Somalia for years and does not want to be identified.

The July 22 attack in which seven UN Indian troops were killed about 40 miles southwest of Mogadishu, in territory Aideed claims to control, also poses a dilemma for Aideed - and UNOSOM, says Menkhaus.

If Aideed's forces attacked the UN troops, why would UNOSOM want to cut a deal with the perpetrator, he asks. If bandits attacked, then Aideed is not as strong as he claims, he adds.

``I hope UNOSOM does not endorse a government not representative of the major parties,'' says Greg Beck, director for Somalia for International Rescue Committee, a relief agency.

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