Canadian Troops Win Somali Kudos

Somali leaders and Western relief officials say the UN should emulate Canada's peacekeepers, whose support for local leaders garners praise

IN this central Somali town near the Ethiopian border, Canadian troops have helped restore security and civil rule in a way that could become a model for United Nations troops when they take over peacekeeping efforts in Somalia.

The Canadians in Belet Uen have curtailed armed looting, located and put under surveillance armed militias, including along the nearby front line between rival Somali clans, and seized large numbers of weapons.

The troops have also helped start a voluntary police force, paying the police with food, and are now assisting community leaders to restart public schools.

Both Somali leaders here and Western relief officials praise the Canadian accomplishments to date and attribute them to the troops' willingness to work closely with local Somalis.

"We've always recognized you must get the local people to make the decisions," Col. Serge Labbe, commander of all Canadian troops in Somalia, said in a Monitor interview here.

Canadian forces have no colonial baggage, Colonel Labbe said. "We've never been an imperial power," he said. "In the streets of Mogadishu, they shook my hand when they saw me as American. When I said I was Canadian, they embraced me."

On Feb. 15, the UN announced plans for deployment of 25,000 UN troops in northern and southern Somalia, eventually to take over from the United States-led troops.

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali will present these and other recommendations to the UN Security Council soon, according to a UN spokesman in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

Feb. 15 was also the deadline, largely unmet, for Somali militia leaders to comply with US orders to identify their weapons for registration by the US-led forces. In January, leaders of 14 Somali factions agreed to disarmament, but so far nothing has been done to carry out this agreement.

This lack of progress, plus continued fighting in some parts of Somalia, including near Belet Uen, and deep-seated mistrust among rival clan leaders, makes any settlement unlikely at a planned national conference March 15.

It is in this uncertain political climate that the UN is moving ahead with plans to take over the US role in Somalia. President Clinton said recently he hopes plans proceed for the US to hand over its leadership role in Somalia to the UN.

But the UN has come under criticism from US diplomats and military personnel, Somali, and Western relief officials, for its lack of success on either military or political issues in Somalia.

Thus the success achieved so far by the Canadian troops in this central Somali town and surrounding area, on both the military and civilian fronts, is worth a close look, according to local Somali leaders and relief officials.

The principal traditional leader here, Ugas Khalif, says he is pleased with the Canadian troops' actions to date.

"They came, they listened," says Michelle Kelly, program coordinator here and nurse practitioner with the International Medical Corps (IMC), a US-based relief agency. As a result, she says, "the situation has really improved."

"You used to take a truck five kilometers out of town and it was looted," said Ms. Kelly, during a peaceful visit about 25 miles outside Belet Uen to several of the village health posts IMC supports.

A return of rural security also means food distribution is starting up again by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In Belet Uen itself, members of the Somali police force the Canadians helped organize now patrol the streets, sometimes with the Canadians. The police even ease traffic jams on the single-lane bridges over the Scebeli River. Now trucks, cars, donkey carts, and the white Canadian tanks all wait their turn.

There are still some armed looters here, as well as potentially dangerous labor disputes with relief agencies over wages and contracts, but the dusty, narrow streets are full of pedestrians.

Shop doors are open. Piles of second-hand clothing for sale line the roadways, along with bags of corn, rice, and ground nuts.

A few months back, "the markets were empty; now they're full of life," says Nadine Puechjuirbal, director of food distribution here for the ICRC.

Relief workers now feel safe enough to walk around town, though they say they prefer to be accompanied by an unarmed Somali staff person to avoid petty robberies in the streets.

"The problem is still security, and the future is uncertain," Ms. Puechjuirbal says. A major uncertainty is who will replace the Canadians, who are going home when the US hands over the reins to the UN.

Some other countries are expected to keep troops here, while still others are expected to sign up under UN leadership - if, as a UN spokesman says must happen, the UN Security Council mandate to the UN troops is as strong as the one the US-led forces now have.

"We need to have our hands not tied," says Canadian Capt. Jacques Poitras, a spokesman here for the troops, who fears the UN rules will be weaker. "We need to be able to shoot first."

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