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UN price on the warlord's head: He had Mogadishu at his mercy, but he made one false move. Richard Dowden on General Aideed's biggest mistake

GENERAL Mohamed Farah Aideed, the United Nations' first wanted man, is being hunted down in the back streets of Mogadishu, portrayed as a 'warlord' and held responsible for the deaths of 23 UN soldiers from Pakistan.

Yet the general was once a respected political and military figure in Somalia, and when CIA officials and other Americans came to Mogadishu ahead of the UN intervention force last December, they came under General Aideed's protection. In the eyes of the media, he has been demonised since the gun battle between his troops and the Pakistanis two weeks ago. But there are many Somalis who, even if they do not support him, will not welcome his death at the hands of foreigners.

But for one mistake, General Aideed could have been president of Somalia, perhaps being congratulated on his country's unity, peace and progress by President Clinton at a joint press conference on the White House lawn. Since that error, he has made a Macbeth-like progress from potential president to outlaw.

His demise began as his forces approached Mogadishu in January 1991. After two weeks of fierce fighting between his United Somali Congress (USC) rebels and government forces, the then president, Siad Barre, and his bodyguard suddenly broke out and fled west. They are reported to have put the country's entire gold deposits and what remained of the national treasury in a tank and taken it with them.

The choice General Aideed faced was to seize the capital or turn and give chase to Siad Barre. The capital is the core of power in Somalia and includes its mouthpiece, the radio station. Possession of the capital is nine-tenths of legitimacy. But the general turned and chased Siad Barre and did not return to Mogadishu for several days. That gave time for an alternative leadership to establish itself, and two days after Siad Barre left, a group of Mogadishu businessmen nominated Ali Mahdi Mohamed, a rich hotelier, as interim president. Ali Mahdi's supporters looted Mogadishu's substantial arsenals.

After a 10-month standoff, war broke out between them, and for the next five months they pounded Mogadishu to ruins with tanks and artillery.

At the height of that fighting I met General Aideed at his house and headquarters behind a high- walled enclosure among the wealthy suburbs of south Mogadishu. He was dressed in a black denim jacket with flower-power patches, a straw beach hat and carried a silver-topped cane. Under his jacket was the strap of a shoulder holster.

He is a thick-set, bull-headed man with puffy features and angry eyes. He smiles only when you smile. He did not blink as shells moaned and crashed, apparently at random, near the house. He talked as if I wasn't there, a long self-justifying monologue.

When Siad Barre seized power in 1969, Aideed was a colonel who had been trained in Italy and the Soviet Union. Siad Barre knew that any opposition in the army would consolidate around Aideed, so he imprisoned him for six years, much of it in solitary confinement.

On his release, he was given a civilian job, but when war broke out with Ethiopia in 1977, the former colonel's military abilities were needed and he was recalled to the army. After the war he became a member of Siad Barre's new assembly and then military administrator in the president's office. 'But he was keeping watch on me all the time,' General Aideed said. 'I was watched 24 hours a day by his secret police.'

In 1984, the general was sent to India as ambassador. When civil war erupted in northern Somalia, he was ordered to give the government's point of view - and refused.

He joined the anti-Barre opposition, and his organisation, the USC, published a manifesto in 1990 that pledged respect for human rights, a national reconciliation conference, multi-party democracy and elections. 'My own aim is not to seek power but to free the country,' he said. 'Of course, I believe in democracy and free elections. The Somali people must chose their leaders by one man one vote.'

As he spoke there was another volley of explosions outside, but the general was not yet a 'warlord'. He was chairman of the USC, a legitimate political movement who, like many African leaders, had 'liberated' his country by force in the name of democracy. Why, instead of being on the lawns of the White House with President Clinton, is he being sought by US troops in the back streets of Mogadishu? By 1991, Somali society had disintegrated and 'political parties' and 'liberation movements' were little more than covers for clans and clan warfare. General Aideed seems to have made efforts to build across clan lines, but once he was poised to take the capital, his 'liberation' war became seen as a clan takeover.

He is from the Hawiye clan's Habir Gedir sub-clan, a nomadic group that lives in the arid west. The people in Mogadishu are also Hawiye, but most are from the Abgal sub-clan. The political battle became a clan war with tanks. When a ceasefire was established, talks became bogged down over whether General Aideed should be allowed to represent the land and people he ruled over, or whether he should represent only the people and territory of the Habir Gedir - it was his military might against traditional Somali politics.

His decision to turn from the gates of Mogadishu and chase Siad Barre in January 1991 was, according to many people, motivated by revenge. Revenge and General Aideed's refusal to share power with rivals in Mogadishu led to one of Africa's most catastrophic and bloody wars. It lost him what legitimacy he once had. Now steeped in blood after four years of almost incessant fighting, he is seen as the boss of a gang of evil killers.

The United States hit back Saturday at suggestions that United Nations troops in Somalia had lost control in bloody incidents in which civilians were killed. 'What coalition forces have been confronting here is totally alien to the customs and mores of their home cultures, international law and the Geneva Convention,' said a statement by the US liaison office in Mogadishu.

It described how a Pakistani officer, Captain Syed Riaz Manzoor, had been bayoneted repeatedly and 'eviscerated, his throat slit, his eyes gouged out.'

(Photograph omitted)