US in talks to free pilot held in Somalia: Washington's envoy meets aide to General Aideed in search for a political solution

THE United States yesterday began negotiations for the release of its hostage in Somalia, Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant, who is being held by the forces of General Mohamed Farah Aideed.

Ambassador Robert Oakley, the former US special envoy in Somalia, yesterday met a senior aide of General Aideed in Mogadishu to put terms for the release of Warrant Officer Durant and a Nigerian soldier held since 5 September.

According to US sources, the terms of the deal were that an independent tribunal be set up to examine the circumstances surrounding the killing in June of 24 Pakistani troops serving with the United Nations. After the killings, the UN declared General Aideed a wanted man and he went into hiding. Hundreds of Somalis and some 50 UN soldiers and workers have been killed in attempts to capture him.

Another offer made by Mr Oakley is understood to be a return to the agreement made in March in Addis Ababa under which all factions would disarm and restart political reconciliation. If the independent tribunal - an idea already proposed by General Aideed - clears him, he will be allowed back into the political process, giving the US forces a period of peace before they pull out in March. The negotiations represent the abandonment of the search for General Aideed and Washington's search for a decent way out of the Somali quagmire.

Although Mr Oakley met Admiral Jonathan Howe, the UN special representative in Mogadishu yesterday, the United Nations has not been involved in the decision by Washington to try to secure the release of the hostage and get General Aideed back in the political mainstream. It will not please Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, who has been deeply and personally committed to the capture of General Aideed. Mr Boutros-Ghali is reported to have said that half of America wanted to get out of Somalia tomorrow and the other half wanted to raze Mogadishu as they went.

Mr Oakley set up the US intervention in December and was welcomed to Mogadishu personally by General Aideed. His policy was to embrace the leader of the United Somali Congress but offer him nothing and try to intimidate him militarily and marginalise him politically.

Something of those tactics were in evidence yesterday when, for all Mr Oakley's efforts to make a peace deal with General Aideed, the US forces were dropping leaflets on the city warning that the general was a bandit and an obstacle to peace. The city has enjoyed relative calm since the general declared a ceasefire two days ago. But in the afternoon, F/A-18 and A-6 aircraft from the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln screamed across the city, adding to the constant throb of patrolling Blackhawk helicopters and raising tensions again.

The leaflets were issued in the name of the UN force in Somalia, but they were drawn up by the US psyops (psychological operations) team, which does not come directly under UN command. A UN spokesman said he could not comment, but sources said the UN had not been told about the leaflet drop or the message - which the spokesman agreed was in contrast to the prevailing spirit of goodwill.

(Photograph omitted)