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Aideed's wings clipped by US

THE PRICE of the return ticket was peace. When Mohamed Farah Aideed did not deliver the goods in Addis Ababa this week the Americans abandoned him, leaving him stranded in the Ethiopian capital, unable to get home to Mogadishu.

It could have been worse - they could have dropped him off on the way - after all, they spent months trying to kill him or capture him. But when General Aideed's forces almost wiped out a crack American Ranger unit in October, US - and UN - policy changed and Washington decided to involve him in peace talks. Last week they brought him to Addis Ababa in a US military plane for the UN-sponsored peace conference.

The peace conference collapsed at the weekend when General Aideed and Ali Mahdi Mohamed, Somalia's second most powerful faction leader, failed to meet. Yesterday, the General, dressed in a smart three-piece suit, was sanguine about his prospects of getting home when the US military spokesman announced: 'There are no plans for Aideed to return on a US military aircraft.' General Aideed said he had no date for a return to Somalia but if the Americans were offering, he would accept a lift. But he added: 'I am capable of going to my country on my own without any help.'

Unless the Ethiopians oblige by providing an aircraft, it is difficult to see how. There is no tarred road across the waterless wastes of eastern Ethiopia and Somalia. If there ever was a bus service, it has not run for decades and now the route is plagued with bandits.

Since the UN still officially regards General Aideed as a wanted man, he is unlikely to hitch a lift on a UN flight. There have been no scheduled flights into Mogadishu since 1991 and the usual route is by small chartered aircraft from Nairobi. Dozens of planes leave every day for airstrips throughout Somalia carrying quat, the narcotic leaf to which most Somalis are mildly addicted. General Aideed is known to control a large proportion of this quat, so presumably he could get a lift on one of the flights.

When he does get back he will find the landscape changing rapidly. The first large contingent of US troops sailed from Mogadishu on the aircraft carrier America yesterday. By Christmas, the Belgians and most of the French and German troops will have left Somalia, leaving Indian and Pakistani troops as the backbone of the UN peace-keeping mission. President Clinton has promised that all US troops will be out by 31 March.