Welcome to the lair of the warlord: Richard Dowden in Mogadishu meets the man hunted by 30,000 US troops, who accuses the UN of killing or injuring 9,000 Somalis

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GENERAL Mohamed Farah Aideed did not look like a man who has been hiding for 97 days from 30,000 troops backed by helicopter gunships, spy planes, the CIA and American special forces.

Fresh-faced and smiling, he seemed to have put on weight. In red tie and pressed striped shirt, with gold-rimmed glasses and a gold-topped cane, he looked more like a successful businessman than a 'warlord' accused of causing the deaths of thousands of his own countrymen and more than 60 UN peace-keepers. Even when a US helicopter thudded overhead the UN's first 'wanted' man did not blench.

It had been a strange journey from the journalists' hotel where General Aideed's aides had met us, racing through the smashed streets of Mogadishu, swerving past ragged children, wrecked cars, donkeys and piles of burning rubbish. We passed the burnt-out wreck of an American army truck used by the US Rangers in their fateful raid of

3 October and disappeared into the grid of narrow streets known as Wardingley, which means 'the well of blood'.

It is General Aideed's stronghold. In an alley we were ushered out of our cars and into a Land Cruiser and took off again. At a small house we were taken to a darkened room and given a thorough body search, then back into the Land Cruiser and a further drive.

There was no sign of weapons at the smart, newly-painted house where we stopped. We were taken through a small courtyard into a sitting- room with thick carpets and plush sofas. There were plastic flowers on the table and a hint of perfume in the air. General Aideed came in surrounded by young men who did not appear to be armed. 'Hello, Richard, welcome. Nice to see you again,' he said, and took my hand with a bony grip as hard as his eyes.

Significantly he began with the thrice-repeated 'Allahu Akbar' ('God is most great') - he is trying to draw the Islamic fundamentalists into his ranks - and then read from an eight-page document written in ballpoint on lined sheets of paper. It was, he said, a statement issued by the special meeting of the Leadership Council of the Somali National Alliance. It announced the unconditional release of the American pilot and the Nigerian soldier and called for the immediate and unconditional release of the Somalis 'who have been unlawfully abducted by the US Rangers'. Most of them are senior Aideed supporters who were arrested on 3 October and are being held pending investigation into attacks on UN forces.

The general called for a peaceful dialogue on the problems and the past, and welcomed President Bill Clinton's change of policy on Somalia. But the statement also said that the deployment of an extra 5,000 American troops in Somalia was unnecessary and would have a negative effect. 'The US and UN troops in Somalia should be reduced and the money spent on development,' General Aideed said.

He blamed the United Nations for killing or injuring 9,000 Somalis and the destruction of property, but he said that the US, far from correcting the UN mistakes, had 'pursued, promoted and encouraged the same destructive policies, and as a result merciless military operations which massacred hundreds of Somalis were launched'.

The SNA, the statement said, was 'the only movement in the country with a national political agenda and is supported by more than 70 per cent of the people'.

The UN resolutions ordering his capture he described as 'sinister plots against this popular movement (the SNA) and the interests of the Somali people'. Answering questions, the general said US forces had never got near killing or capturing him and he had never left Mogadishu. 'I have been bombarded at my house at the beginning, but after that I was always in Mogadishu and they never came close to me.'

The US has kept up 24-hour surveillance of the city since Admiral Jonathan Howe, the UN special representative, issued a 'wanted' order for General Aideed in July, put a dollars 25,000 reward on his head and - it is believed - increased the CIA presence in the city. Spy planes patrol day and night and the US Quick Reaction Force has launched at least five attempts to kill or capture him, led by the US Rangers, the special forces. In each raid many Somalis were killed but General Aideed was never seen.

He said that he would remain in hiding for the time being because of 'contradictory statements' by the US and UN. But he believed the current ceasefire would hold and lead to peaceful dialogue.

On the question of facing charges from the UN for instigating the killing of 24 Pakistani troops on 5 June, he said: 'We have asked that an international commission of inquiry be set up to work out and find out the responsibility of all those crimes committed from 5 June.'

He reserved particular venom for the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who is due here next week. 'He has done the worst action against the Somali people,' he said, and accused him of being allied to the former President Siad Barre. Admiral Howe he described as 'harmful', and said he should leave Somalia.

When he was asked if he wanted to be the next president of Somalia he laughed and said demurely that it was for the Somali people to decide, but he described himself as 'having played a major role in the peace process' with an important political future.

The term 'warlord', he said, had been invented to damage his image. 'I am not warlord,' he said. Asked how it felt to have defeated both the United States and the United Nations, he said: 'When you fight for justice and you win you become happy. I believe I acted with my supporters fairly and in defence of Somalia.'

(Photograph omitted)