US Bid for a Political Settlement Faces Tests in Streets of Somalia

Residents of the capital see new deployment as a provocation

LIKE undetonated mines, an imminent redeployment of United States troops in some parts of Mogadishu and a coming Security Council debate on renewal of the UN mandate in Somalia lie in the path of US attempts to negotiate a political solution here.

Revived negotiations between the US and senior aides of factional leader Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, hunted by foreign troops from June to October, have left officials from both sides voicing cautious optimism about the future.

But skeptical Somalis from various ethnic groups point out that two basic issues - disarmament and political reconciliation among rival factional leaders - are not likely to be resolved before US troops pull out March 31.

``I'd like to ask President Clinton and Congress not to leave us in this state,'' says Mahad Mohamed Maalim, foreign affairs secretary of the United Somali Youth Salvation, a small, inter-clan political organization. ``If US troops withdraw from Somalia [before peace and disarmament are achieved], I think we might go back to civil war, and people will starve.''

Just as the negotiations between the US and General Aideed's forces get under way, two threats to the process are cropping up.

First, the US, possibly within days, will begin moving some recently arrived troops and heavy armor out of their sun-baked, treeless camps onto some main streets in a show of force aimed at keeping order and encouraging peace talks.

No house-to-house searches will be conducted for weapons, but any heavy weapons spotted will be seized, says US Army Col. Steve Rausch, a military spokesman here.

``We're going to take to the streets, not take the streets,'' asserts Colonel Rausch. But, he adds, return fire will quickly follow if any Somalis ``take a poke at us.'' In a city full of armed Somali gunmen, the presence of more troops on the streets risks a new round of fighting.

Hassan Awale, a senior aide to Aideed, says the new troops, who have arrived in Somalia in recent weeks, are ``unacceptable.

``What are they doing here?'' he asks. But Mr. Awale goes beyond the standard diatribe against the US role here; he says the details of US troop movements ``can be discussed.'' He expresses optimism that negotiations with the US can bring peace.

A second problem concerns UN policy. The Security Council's mandate for the UN operation in Somalia technically ran out Oct. 31, but was extended until Nov. 18. In his anticipated recommendation to renew the mandate, possibly as soon as today, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros- Ghali also must decide whether to follow the US example and stop pursuit of Aideed.

The UN blames Aideed for the June 5 killing of 24 Pakistani UN soldiers in an ambush.

US officials reportedly have been lobbying the Security Council to approve establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to examine the killings. Aideed has repeatedly called for such an inquiry.

A Somali attorney who is not in Aideed's faction, but who has met with the warlord several times recently, says Aideed has a film showing that Pakistani soldiers fired first and were later killed nearby by Somali gunmen reacting in anger. Aideed did not order the killings, this Somali claims.

If the UN maintains a policy of hot pursuit of Aideed, it will put the organization in conflict with US policy. The US now wants to talk with Aideed, not seize him.

Clinton's new emphasis on negotiation and the promised withdrawal of troops are an acknowledgment that ``there have been mistakes [in US policy] and there needed to be a course correction,'' said the president's special envoy to Somalia, Robert Oakley, last week.

Mr. Oakley was here on his second visit since his recent reappointment. No specifics were announced from his meetings with several senior Aideed aides, as well as other factional and traditional leaders. But Oakley promised to return ``periodically'' for talks. There are also plans for a meeting of clan factional leaders later this month in Ethiopia.

Asked what Aideed expects out of the negotiations, Awale says with a laugh, ``We want a lot.'' He quickly lists the release of prisoners and an end to the search for leaders of Aideed's Somali National Alliance. He calls on the US and UN to ``stop interference in Somali affairs.''

US military officials say release of the 58 prisoners held here is likely soon. They are being held under ``preventative detention'' and have been denied access to lawyers, one officer says.

All but four prisoners are held at a now-defunct university campus near the UN headquarters.

Officials would not tell reporters where the four - who are close associates of Aideed - are held, and UN and US military spokesmen have denied reporters permission to visit any of the prisoners.

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