PEACEKEEPING efforts in Somalia are at a critical juncture, as United States and United Nations officials prepare to respond to the killing of 23 Pakistani soldiers June 5 in Mogadishu.
Their decision will have major implications for continued relief operations throughout the capital, the future effectiveness of UN troops in maintaining peace in Somalia, and the slowly evolving political negotiations between rival Somali factions.
The killings of the Pakistanis indicate that disarmament in Somalia is still a distant goal, one which neither US nor those troops from other nations there under the UN have been able to accomplish.
Experts are now divided over whether to mount a strong military reprisal or push harder for a diplomatic solution.
A military strike could trigger further attacks by the Somali faction suspected of the June 5 killings of peacekeepers; yet the lack of a response could also embolden the Somali gunmen to attempt more attacks.
The situation is "very delicate," a relief official said in Nairobi yesterday.
If civilians are killed in an attack, this would make future UN efforts in Somalia more difficult, he said. But some relief officials and many Somalis want the UN to take firm action against Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, the leader of the faction blamed for killing the Pakistani peacekeepers.
The US announced Wednesday it was sending four sophisticated AC-130 attack aircraft to Somalia. They are capable of day or night strikes, using computers and radar to hone in on specific targets.
But which targets?
Like most Somali fighters, the suspected gunmen who belong to the faction led by General Aideed do not wear uniforms. The men move around. They blend in with the civilian population. And they often hide their guns.
Weapons caches, established by US and UN troops to store factional weapons, would make an easier target. But there are risks in attacking them.
If US planes or UN ground forces destroy the caches located in Mogadishu or outside the capital, Aideed and other Somali factional army leaders likely would no longer be bound to agreements to keep their weapons in such sites.
That could free large quantities of weapons for use in renewed fighting among the factions.
Both militarily and politically, in fights and political negotiations with rival factions, Aideed has been losing ground in Somalia in recent months. This may account for an increased belligerence by his forces - a kind of striking out reaction in response to a lost advantage outside the city.
A show of US military muscle in Kismayo earlier this year had no discernible effect in ending contention over that city by two rival Somali factions. War ships, helicopters, and some 2,000 Marines were involved in the operation there.
In the June 5 attack, it is not clear whether all measures were taken to protect the Pakistani troops in the first place.
Col. Azif Duraiz, deputy commander of Pakistani troops in Mogadishu, calls the attack an ambush. He wants justice, he says. "The whole world is behind us," he told a reporter in the capital.
But there were clear indications that tensions in the city were mounting and that the troops might be in danger. There is no indication that either air cover or armored cars were provided for the Pakistanis.
A UN statement issued June 7 notes that loudspeakers were being used by Somalis in the city to allege that UN troops were planning to take over Aideed's radio station. The station apparently had been broadcasting anti-UN statements.
But Adishwar Padarath, a UN spokesman, denies any UN plan to take over the radio station. "Why would we need to take over a radio station," he said yesterday in an interview here in Nairobi, where many UN staff have been evacuated. The UN has its own radio station and newspaper.
The current crisis comes amidst some positive developments. Somali factions in Mogadishu have agreed on the formation of a police force, which has begun training. Trade and commerce has been picking up in the city. Elsewhere in the south and central parts of the country, the hardest hit by the famine of 1991-92, starvation is largely ended.