Somali elders appeal to UN to abandon use of force: Peace group wants lower US profile and general disarmament

NO ROOM for compromise appears to exist between supporters of the Somali warlord General Mohamed Farah Aideed and the United Nations, which is attempting to hunt him down as a wanted criminal on allegations of organising the 5 June massacre of 23 Pakistani troops.

Those who applaud the UN attempts to pacify the country are quickly branded stooges of imperialism by Aideed supporters, while critics of the UN military forces' recent bombings are described as being hoodwinked by what the United States Liaison Office described on Saturday as Gen Aideed's 'campaign of lies and innuendo'.

Most Somalis find themselves somewhere between these positions, many having witnessed the suffering caused by Gen Aideed's ruthless drive for power but also having been shocked by the United Nations' apparent disregard for civilian life in last week's bombing raids and ground assault. These hit not only the warlord's installations but also innocent bystanders, the city's biggest hospital, Digfer, and the compound of the French relief agency, the Association Internationale Contre la Faim.

One prominent group of concerned citizens is a broad-based Peace Committee of Somali elders, which is sharply critical of Gen Aideed but at the same time believe the United Nations strategy in Somalia is deeply flawed. The committee is made up of former ministers, businessmen, and civil servants from such traditionally warring clans and sub-clans as Gen Aideed's Habir Gedir, the Abgal of his main rival, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, the Dir, and the Rahawain. It has attempted to convince the UN Special Envoy to Somalia, the retired US Navy Admiral Jonathan Howe, that brute force will not work.

But the views of this group, others like it, and the UN intervention force have been largely ignored by the warring factions and many Somalis. The committee's failure to influence events, however, has not discouraged its members.

Ironically, it was elders' committees such as these that the UN said it was trying to promote as an alternative to the warlords when the US marines launched Operation Restore Hope last December. Instead, the then US special ambassador, Robert Oakley, boosted Gen Aideed's legitimacy by meeting him in an effort to smooth the way for US troops.

'A day before the big assault, we presented our petition to the UN special representative (Admiral Howe),' said the committee's spokesman, Abdikassim Salad Hassan, a former deputy prime minister and minister of the interior in the government of the fallen dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. 'But he ignored our appeal. It left us very dispirited.'

The one-page petition said the committee called on Admiral Howe 'to stop without delay the air bombardments and to refrain from any other action which may further exacerbate the situation'. Because Somalia's court system has collapsed, the committee said, responsibility for the 5 June massacre of Pakistani troops should be determined by a commission made up of members from the United Nations Operation in Somalia (Unosom), Gen Aideed's Somali National Alliance, and community elders. 'Right now it is Unosom which is accusing Aideed, and they will also establish the court. How can that be?' asked a Peace Committee member, Abdulkadir Sheik Mao, a businessman, economist and former secretary-general of the Mogadishu municipality. 'If one is not convicted by a court he is not guilty. They came to a conclusion before setting up the investigating committee,' he said. 'That is not right.'

Should the UN military forces kill or capture Gen Aideed, many committee members believe there will be a bloodbath in Somalia.

The committee's solution is to restructure the UN hierarchy in Somalia by reducing the prominence of the Americans involved. They favour immediate disarmament applied to all factions. 'We supported disarmament, but it has only been in the southern Mogadishu area,' said Mr Salad Hassan. 'It must be generalised.' And it must be accomplished as far as possible with the co-operation of the warlords, as set out in agreements signed earlier this year at the UN-sponsored negotiations in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. 'One hand is shelling, while the other hand is asking for disarmament,' Mr Sheik Mao said. 'If it continues the disarmament will fail.'

(Photograph omitted)