Release of American helicopter pilot raises hopes of peace

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BY RELEASING an American helicopter pilot and a Nigerian soldier yesterday, General Aideed relaunched himself as a political player in Somalia after more than three months on the run from United Nations forces, write Richard Dowden in Mogadishu and Patrick Cockburn in Washington.

It was a rare moment of hope in Somalia's recent history, but although Admiral Jonathan Howe, the UN special representative in Mogadishu, welcomed it, he did not reciprocate by releasing some 50 alleged supporters of General Aideed held for questioning by the UN, and he did not call off the hunt for the general, who is accused of instigating the deaths of 24 Pakistani troops on 5 June.

President Bill Clinton told a news conference in Washington no deal had been made for the release of Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant. Asked about setting free General Aideed's fighters, Mr Clinton said this was 'up to the UN'.

A badly-injured Chief Warrant Officer Durant, the helicopter pilot shot down on 3 October, was handed over on a stretcher by General Aideed's fighters to the Red Cross yesterday. He looked pale and in pain as he was carried to the ambulance. He has a compound fracture of the right leg, a bullet wound in his arm and a broken cheekbone. Umar Shantali, a Nigerian soldier held since 5 September, was also released. He was limping from a leg wound but smiled and said: 'I just want to say goodbye to Somalia.'

They were immediately taken to hospital for examination. Admiral Howe said afterwards that both men were in good spirits and delighted to be reunited with their friends. 'It's a good day,' he said.

Asked if General Aideed was still a 'wanted man', the admiral said: 'He should account for the allegations against him.' He would not comment on suggestions that the UN might release the Somalis it has detained, but said all options were open, and called for talks with the Somali National Alliance.

Chief Warrant Officer Durant was shot down when his helicopter came to the rescue of a 120-strong US Rangers unit which was ambushed in central Mogadishu after carrying out the arrests of General Aideed's senior advisers. It was that disaster and pictures of the wounded pilot held hostage which forced Mr Clinton to change US and UN policy in Somalia and announce the pull-out of US troops. The negotiations for the release of the prisoners were set up by Robert Oakley, Mr Clinton's special envoy.

Responding to General Aideed's call for an independent commission, Mr Clinton said: 'If he's willing to have somebody that we can all trust look into that, then that's something I think that Mr Oakley is certainly willing to entertain over there.'