PRESIDENT Clinton said yesterday's release of US Army pilot Michael Durant and a Nigerian United Nations peacekeeper was an indication that US policy in Somalia is ``moving in the right direction.''
The release could signal an easing of the conflict in the capital, Mogadishu. Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, whose forces held the hostages and against whom United Nations military efforts have been waged, says he now hopes to become personally involved in the peace process in Somalia.
But several Somali obververs and a US diplomat caution that General Aideed is bent on obtaining power one way or another, underscoring the importance, they say, of establishment of an interim government representing all factions.
``Presumably he [Aideed] has not given up his idea of ruling Somalia,'' the US official says.
They caution further that if the United States sticks to its quick-withdrawal plan - a policy speedily drawn up in the wake of an Oct. 3-4 military strike in which 18 US troops were killed and Officer Durant was captured - the same kind of civil war and famine that drew US troops to Somalia last December is likely to reoccur.
President Clinton announced last week he was doubling US military presence from 5,300 to roughly 10,000 troops and would withdraw these forces by March 31.
Avoiding renewed tragedy will require disarmament and politicial reconciliation between rival clans, both of which are likely to take much longer than the March 31 pullout date. Most Somali analysts interviewed contend that a US pullout effectively weakens UN operations in Somalia, since US troops have been the main military force to engage Aideed's militia.
``I think Aideed is trying to make a reasonably good gesture to the Americans,'' says Abdullah Hashi, co-founder of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front, a Somali political party that is a rival to General Aideed. But ``the Americans will be required to stay long enough for establishment of some government, otherwise all the efforts they have made so far will come to nothing.''
US troops should stay ``up to three years'' to allow time for formation of a national government of reconciliation, says Mohamed Abdi Hashi, chairman of the United Somali Party.
Lacking disarmament and an interim government, a US withdrawal will be disastrous for the people of central Somalia where the famine was most intense, Somalis say. But disarmament will not work if the US goes home soon, a clan member from the central town of Baidoa says. ``Why give up my guns to someone who is leaving?'' A. M. Ali asks. Sending a negative message
The US withdrawal will not only damage humanitarian efforts in Somalia, but sends a negative ``message'' around the world that ``we quit in international efforts if a determined group decides to block our efforts,'' said Kofi Annan, UN under-secretary general for peacekeeping.
The US and UN should now speed up efforts to reconcile rival clans, Somali and US analysts say. But the deeply rooted, and long-standing rivalries are not likely to be cleared up quickly, cautions John Chipman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
``The difficulty is that the Somalis have never done this successfully for the last 30 years, so I see little prospect of foreigners being able to do it easily,'' Dr. Chipman said Tuesday in London.
An interim peacekeeping measure might be for the US and UN to help form local and perhaps regional militias, the US official suggests.
While some Somalis continue to urge the UN to arrest Aideed, the US official and some Somali rivals of Aideed say an arrest would accomplish little.
``He was never the only problem,'' the official says. ``There are a lot of bad guys in south Mogadishu ... running around with guns, interested in controlling part of Mogadishu.'' Seeking political compromise
It would be better for the US to strike a political compromise with Aideed, says Mr. Hashi of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front. The US, Mr. Hashi says, should make clear that Aideed will not be president of Somalia, but will be allowed to join a yet-unformed Transitional National Council, which Aideed and other factional leaders have agreed should run Somalia until elections are held in a few years.
One of the political and military rivalries in Somalia is between two main clans, the Darod and Hawiye. The Darod have ruled Somalia during most of its independence. Aideed, a Hawiye, strongly opposes the Darod. ``That's his pitch - that now its their [Hawiye] turn,'' the US official says. Many of Aideed's supporters back him not out of personal loyalty, but out of fear of domination by the Darod, Somali analysts say.
Much of the Darod-Hawiye rivalry is over who will control central Somalia, one of the country's most productive agricultural areas.