Mutiny simmers under the blue helmet: Are blitzkrieg tactics in Somalia a mark of new UN resolve - or is it just the US calling the shots? Peter Pringle reports from New York

THE United Nations harbours a dark secret about its operations in Somalia. It concerns the day, 5 June, when two contingents of Pakistani troops wearing UN blue helmets were ambushed by gunmen in Mogadishu and 23 were killed. The Pakistanis called for help, and the UN force commander ordered a Saudi Arabian and a Kuwaiti contingent to go to the aid of their fellow Muslims. But they stayed put. Quite why is not yet clear.

UN officials have not mentioned the incident, and Pakistan has not complained. To have done so would only have added to the deep embarrassment the UN suffered last week because of another act of insubordination by a member of the multinational peace-keeping force in Somalia - this time, Italy. General Bruno Loi, commander of the Italian contingent, had so irked the UN by following his own agenda of trying to negotiate with the warlords that the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, sacked him - or, at least, he informed Rome that the general was no longer welcome in the force and should be sent home. If he did not go, Mr Boutros-Ghali implied, the rest of the Italian contingent of 2,400 men might also have to pack their kitbags.

Rome has yet to agree to General Loi's departure. And he clearly has room for manoeuvre because the UN is still not sure it has the right under its charter to fire him. The row emphasises the problems of the UN turning from peace-keeper, as of old, to peace- enforcer, as in Somalia.

The official objection of the Italians is that the UN effort in Somalia has changed from a humanitarian, peace-keeping operation to a peace-enforcement mission which, Rome feels, relies too heavily on the use of force instead of negotiation. On several occasions since the Pakistani ambush on 5 June, American helicopters of the US Quick Reaction Force have struck at buildings said to have housed arms, military documents or materiel belonging to the Somali warlord, General Mohamed Farah Aideed - the man the UN now holds responsible for killing the Pakistanis. The UN Security Council has put a price on Aideed's head: dollars 25,000.

Hundreds of Somalis have died and their property has been flattened in several raids by US helicopters. 'Success,' beamed President Bill Clinton after one of the raids. 'Complete success,' said Jonathan Howe, the retired American Navy admiral who is the UN special envoy to Somalia. But Aideed remains at large, a fugitive 'thug', as US officials say, chased by a posse made up essentially of Americans, using US helicopters, but sanctioned by the UN. Critics have predictably charged: 'US runs UN.' And, as Mr Clinton seemed to gain in the opinion polls from the action, they also charged: 'UN run by US domestic policy.' The desperately late but relatively successful Somalia operation to end starvation in the country suddenly seemed to have gone awry.

At UN headquarters in New York, the military staff examined the mess: 'The question we are all asking ourselves is whether we can run a peace-enforcement operation, as in Somalia, or whether the Secretary-General should confine himself to peace-keeping, as in the old days,' said one UN official directly concerned with military operations.

So what are the lessons of Somalia, the largest UN peace- keeping operation in UN history?

President George Bush set an artificial deadline of 20 January, Inauguration Day, when he announced last December that the US was sending 30,000 troops into Somalia to ensure distribution of food that the UN had failed to deliver. Expectations were high of a quick success.

But the US military misjudged the impact of a show of force on the local population. While the troops did feed the hungry and got the crops going again, they failed to disarm the warlords, particularly Aideed, who kept his arsenal out of sight. In addition, the Marines were not well briefed as an occupation force. For example, they went skinny-dipping in front of the Muslim locals, not understanding they would take offence. The initial welcome quickly wore off.

The UN mandate expanded in the spring, charging UN forces to create the conditions under which the population could be fed, political reconciliation could take place and civil society could be restored.

Inevitably, UN peace-keepers, who are often criticised for doing too little, as in Bosnia, were criticised for doing too much. But this is the new era of peace-keeping, when 'a blue helmet is not a sitting duck', as Madeleine Albright, the US Ambassador to the UN, puts it. Another US official observed: 'The public has to get used to the idea that, when the UN uses force, it's not going to be all peaches and cream, and so we're getting to people with weak stomachs right at the beginning of a new era.'

But what of generals who don't obey orders? Could they cripple the new, more forceful doctrine? The problem with the Saudis and the Kuwaitis appeared to a large extent to be systemic, and therefore able to be fixed.

In normal peace-keeping operations, faced with orders to move from A to B, a contingent would be expected to consult with its capital first. In old-style peace- keeping operations, there is usually plenty of time for consultations. But in Somalia the Saudis and the Kuwaitis had to react speedily when the Pakistanis ran into the ambush.

Either they did not have time to consult, or they did not want to go. But the row with Italy is of a vastly different character, and goes to the heart of peace-enforcement. General Loi, and his Rome bosses, apparently fundamentally disagreed with the UN- US approach to hunting Aideed.

Favouring negotiation over aggression, they were redefining the strategy, and this is what the UN found unacceptable. 'You can have command and control problems, and slowness to follow orders, but you can't have someone operating differently,' one official said.

But who is in command in Somalia: the US or the UN? The latter's special representative, the direct link to Mr Boutros-Ghali, is Admiral Howe, a former deputy national security adviser in Mr Bush's administration.

The force commander, chosen by the UN Secretary-General and approved by the UN Security Council, is a Turkish general, Cevik Bir, but his deputy is another American, Major-General Thomas Montgomery.

Critics say General Bir is merely a cipher, and that the real commander is General Montgomery. If air strikes are considered necessary against Aideed, it is the Americans who call in the helicopters, and the Secretary-General who then supports the decision.

To some, last week's helicopter raid on Aideed's henchmen, which killed 54 people, was a lasting mistake. 'How can you shoot from the air at a villa where people are sitting and meeting, even if they were Aideed's people?' asked Mohammed Sahnoun, a former UN envoy to Somalia, who was dismissed by Mr Boutros-Ghali after criticising the UN for responding too slowly to the Somalia crisis.

'The attack was excessive and unjust,' he said. 'You can't explain it to the Somali people. Now they are very angry. There is a total divorce between the UN and the Somali people.'

To others, the raid was a necessary evil in the spirit of the new era of a forceful UN. 'If we let this one thug (Aideed) thwart the whole operation, UN peace-keeping is never going to fulfil the hopes and dreams of everyone in the world,' a US official said. 'It's painful, so the sooner we get the guy the better.'

(Photograph omitted)

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