Freed US pilot flies out as focus in Somalia shifts

(First Edition)

MOGADISHU (AP/AFP) - Strapped to a stretcher and clutching his red beret, the freed United States pilot, Michael Durant, was airlifted by helicopter yesterday on his way to a military hospital in Germany.

Chief Warrant Officer Durant woke 'in excellent spirits' after surgery on Thursday on his broken leg, and has every chance of a full recovery for his fractured back and a broken cheekbone, an army doctor said.

The Somali militia leader, General Mohamed Farrah Aideed, released Warrant Officer Durant on Thursday - after 11 days in captivity - in a move that enhanced the General's political stature and diminished his status as a wanted guerrilla leader challenging international law.

It was an about-face that paralleled President Bill Clinton's shift from military force to diplomacy in Somalia after the 3 October battle in which Warrant Officer Durant, 32, was captured. Eighteen American soldiers were killed and more than 70 were wounded in that UN raid, a toll that stunned leaders in the US and prompted calls for an American withdrawal.

The UN special representative, Admiral Jonathan Howe, flew to Djibouti yesterday with Kofi Annan, head of UN peace-keeping operations, and James Jonah, UN under-secretary-general for political affairs, diplomats said. There was speculation that they would meet the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in Djibouti to discuss how to reshape the organisation's policy in Somalia following Washington's shift away from trying to arrest General Aideed and towards a peaceful settlement.

Speculation mounted that Admiral Howe, a retired US naval officer, would be removed as head of the UN Operation in Somalia, which took over from Washington's Operation Restore Hope in May. Diplomats said Admiral Howe was coming under pressure from the US to cancel the arrest warrant he issued for General Aideed in June after Somali militiamen killed 24 Pakistani peace-keepers. An international commission, led by Ethiopia, has been proposed to investigate clashes between Aideed supporters and UN peace-keepers.

President Clinton, stinging from the lessons learned in Somalia, has renewed his criticism of UN peace-keeping operations, blaming the world body for the ongoing struggle with General Aideed. But Mr Clinton, speaking late on Thursday, left the door open to US participation in an eventual multinational force in Bosnia, as long as it is under US command so that mistakes made under UN orders in Somalia are not repeated.

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