Aideed's rival sees things going his way: The action by UN forces in Somalia has boosted the presidential ambitions of clan chief Ali Mahdi

VINDICATION is as invigorating as the cool breeze that sweeps across the veranda at the Italian-style hilltop home of Somalia's self-styled interim president, Ali Mahdi Mohamed.

Down below are the ruins of central Mogadishu, testimony to the four- month civil war that Mr Ali Mahdi waged against his main rival, General Mohamed Farah Aideed. The militiamen loyal to Mr Ali Mahdi's Abgal sub-clan of the Hawiya people came out worst in the battle for Mogadishu, their power limited largely to the northern Karaan district. But today United Nations peace-keeping troops are hunting down Gen Aideed, leader of another Hawiya sub-clan, the Habr Gadir, and no one is more pleased about it than Mr Ali Mahdi.

'I am satisfied, though it has been late, that the world now realises that the only obstacle to peace is Aideed,' Mr Ali Mahdi said in an interview yesterday. 'Day by day he is losing his supporters.'

For months since the arrival of the UN intervention force in December, Mr Ali Mahdi had been overshadowed by Gen Aideed, Somalia's most powerful warlord and commander of the forces that defeated the army of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and captured most of the capital. Gen Aideed, who initially welcomed the UN force and was heavily involved in negotiations with the first US special envoy, Robert Oakley, has been branded as an international outlaw for allegedly organising the 5 June massacre of 24 Pakistani troops.

'I told Oakley Aideed was not sincere,' Mr Ali Mahdi said. 'I was sure he was bluffing, and by the time Oakley left, he agreed with me.'

Now Mr Ali Mahdi's star is rising with the US-dominated UN operation in Somalia, and his chances of assuming the presidency have improved rapidly. Earlier this week he met the retired US navy admiral, Jonathan Howe, UN Special Envoy to Somalia. 'Today the peace process is on the right track,' Mr Ali Mahdi said. 'If they select me again, I am ready to serve as president.'

Mr Ali Mahdi, a former National Assembly member and hotel owner, became an ally of Gen Aideed in June 1990 after he joined a group of businessmen, civil servants, politicians and army officers who signed a manifesto calling for the restoration of democracy.

Most of the so-called Manifesto Group were arrested by Mr Siad Barre's secret police, but Mr Ali Mahdi escaped to Ethiopia, where he joined up with Gen Aideed before travelling to Rome. He returned to Mogadishu three months later as a senior figure in the opposition coalition, the United Somali Congress (USC).

When Mr Siad Barre fled Mogadishu on 27 January 1991, under pressure from Gen Aideed's USC forces, largely Hawiya militiamen, Mr Ali Mahdi's forces captured the radio station and declared their leader president. Few recognised that claim, although two Italian-backed reconciliation conferences renamed him as head of a transitional government.

Gen Aideed, after his forces overthrew Mr Siad Barre, felt the presidency should be his, and so began the civil war in November 1991 that killed up to 30,000 people in Mogadishu and created conditions that led to the starvation of up to 300,000 Somalis.

Gen Aideed's faction of the USC has always accused Mr Ali Mahdi of usurping the presidency with the support of remnants of forces loyal to Mr Siad Barre, now led by his son-in-law, General Mohamed Siad Hersi Morgan. Mr Ali Mahdi appeared to be on good terms with Gen Morgan, who in recent months has strengthened his position in southern Somalia near the Kenyan border and around the port of Kismayu at the expense of Gen Aideed's ally, Col Omar Jess.

With Gen Aideed now under stiff pressure from the UN forces, Mr Ali Mahdi wants them to arrest his enemy, put him on trial and neutralise his heavy weaponry.

BONN - Withdrawal of German troops from Somalia would cause 'serious damage', the Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, told Germany's highest court yesterday, writes Steve Crawshaw.

His comments came as judges began hearing submissions on whether German the troops in Somalia should be ordered home.

(Photograph omitted)

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