The day the new world order died: Only a political solution can save Somalia

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The Independent Online
IN A SANDY alleyway, between flimsy houses of cement blocks and corrugated iron, lies the wreckage of a Blackhawk helicopter. As it crashed, the rotor blades chopped down two trees, and its tail crushed one of the houses. Not far away is a dark stain in the sand. 'American blood,' says Ahmed Farah Gemale, who lives in one of the bullet-spattered, scorched houses nearby.

This is the place where the new world order finally ended.

The concept that the United Nations, with the might of the United States, could bring peace to troubled countries was fatally mauled within 16 hours here on 3 October. More than 500 Somalis were killed or injured. The Americans lost 18 dead, plus 77 wounded and one captured. The hostage, the losses and the horrifying pictures of dead Americans being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu caused the US to announce that it is pulling out of Somalia. Without the American forces, the UN will not be able to hold the ring here. Unless a political deal can be worked out by 31 March next year, when the Americans leave, Somalia will be left to its fate.

Details of the battle here are emerging slowly, and show once again how the Americans failed to communicate with the UN, and how both fatally underestimated the inexhaustible Somali ability to fight.

On the morning of 3 October, Somalis in the pay of the CIA tipped off the Rangers force that a meeting of some of General Mohamed Farah Aideed's aides was taking place that day at the Olympic Hotel in the heart of the Wardigley district, Aideed's stronghold.

Led by Lieutenant-Colonel Danny McKnight, 80 Rangers and more than a dozen from the Delta Force counter-terrorist group set off in eight Blackhawk MH60 helicopters at about 2.30 in the afternoon. Their plan was to slide down ropes on to the roof of the hotel, grab the wanted men and be collected by a second group of Rangers in an armed convoy.

But, according to one report, the plan was kept secret not only from the UN forces, but also from many within US headquarters. General Thomas Montgomery is second in command of the UN forces and also commands the Quick Reaction Force, which is there to support the UN contingents. The QRF is under sole American command and does not come under Unosom, the UN force in Somalia. The general, however, does not control the Rangers, brought in last July with the specific task of capturing General Aideed.

The Rangers, who come under Central Command and Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Airforce Base at Tampa, Florida, are supposed to keep General Montgomery informed about their activities and, in theory, he has a power of veto, but he cannot direct them. One US military official said ruefully yesterday: 'Unity of command is one of the principles of war. We complained when other units in the UN force referred UN orders back to their own headquarters, but when it comes to unity of command, we are the worst.'

The Rangers reached the Olympic Hotel and, despite fire from Aideed's forces, arrested 24 Somalis, including three of Aideed's top aides. However, the land convoy was attacked by Somalis with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) near the airport, where the Rangers are based. That delayed it, and the unit at the hotel, more than a mile away, was coming under increasing fire as Somalis collected their hidden weapons and rushed to the scene. A convoy with the arrested Somalis left, but at about 4.15 the first Blackhawk was shot down, and the rest of the Rangers formed a defensive circle round it.

According to Ahmed, some of the Americans were shot as they left the helicopter, but managed to get into the first house and seized three women and nine children there, forcing them to stand with their faces to the wall. Then some went to the next house, where Ahmed's 60- year-old father lived. 'They kicked and banged the door, and when he opened it, shot him dead,' said Ahmed.

Because of the Somali hostages, the first house was not attacked, but the soldiers inside kept shooting out of the windows at anything that moved. Above, the gunships circled, pouring down cannon fire. In this densely populated area, it is easy to see how the casualties were so heavy. Ahmed said that, as the night went on, the Americans kept shouting, 'Those bastards,' referring to the UN force that failed to rescue them.

Meanwhile, a second Blackhawkwas brought down south of the hotel, in the area known as the Bermuda Triangle. Pilot Michael Durant was taken prisoner; the others were shot, beaten or hacked to death.

At the hotel, the Rangers, lightly armed with machine guns, were coming under heavy fire and were running out of ammunition. A second rescue mission set off from the air base, but was ambushed and forced to turn back.

The Rangers called on the Quick Reaction Force from the 10th Mountain, but they had not been informed ofthe original plan and so it took an hour to mount a rescue team. It, too, was ambushed and forced back.

As night fell, the unthinkable happened. General Montgomery begged the Pakistani and Malaysian commanders to rescue his crack troops. 'Americans are in extremis,' he told the Malaysian commander.

Accounts differ on how they responded to the call, which was way beyond their mandate and their countries' commitment to the UN force. One source said they readily agreed, another that threats were made and a pistol pointed.

But at midnight, a rescue mission was mounted, with 30 armoured personnel carriers filled with the restof the Rangers force and some Malaysian and Pakistani troops.

As they came along the Wardigley road, the lead vehiclewas hit by an armour-piercing grenade and the driver was killed. Three other armoured personnel carriers were abandoned, but the others fought through to the besieged Rangers. It was not until 7am that the rescue was completed.

Now, on the wreckage- strewn route to the Olympic Hotel, children shout 'Michael, Michael', taunting journalists with the name of the captured pilot, and wave pieces of the crashed helicopters and bits of American uniform.

The Red Cross estimates that more than 500 Somalis were killed or injured that night, but the final toll will never be known. The dead are buried privately and many of the wounded were too ill to be taken to hospital. People in this area want revenge and do not believe the Americans will pull out. 'They they wish to colonise us,' said Ahmed. Another man said: 'There cannot be peace with Unosom now.'

The full implications of an American withdrawal arenot yet clear, but General Aideed has offered 'peaceful dialogue', and Admiral Jonathan Howe, the UN special representative, has offered to meet his representatives. Robert Oakley, President Bill Clinton's special envoy, has entrusted the job of bringing the UN and General Aideed together to Haile Menkurion, an Eritrean diplomat, and Lissane Johannes, an Ethiopian diplomat. But the signs for a peaceful solution are not propitious. The Americans have beefed up their forces with an extra 5,000 men, and General Montgomery is to get the tanks he was refused by Les Aspin, the US Defense Secretary, in August. The Americans will go back to patrolling the streets, creating a 'presence on the ground again', according to US military officials.

Although the UN will not announce a formal ceasefire, it has stopped an active hunt for General Aideed. In return, he has announced a ceasefire and offered talks. But if a political solution is not achieved by March, the factions will go back to war. One military effect of the pull-out is that the planned expansion of the Unosom zone northwards to Galcayo, General Aideed's home base, cannot now take place. US military officials estimate that General Aideed's main weapons stocks, including tanks and artillery, are hidden around Galcayo. Although all the faction leaders deposited guns and ammunition in UN-prescribed camps, many weapons have been hidden and more are reported to be arriving along the coast and across the Kenyan border.

There is no shortage of weapons with which to resume fighting - and, beyond a vague desire for peace, no determination among the Somalis to prevent a new war.

(Photograph omitted)