Talk, don't shoot, in Somalia: Waving the stick at warlords is failing, say Karl Maier and Richard Dowden

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OPERATION Restore Hope, the catchy title of the American intervention in Somalia last December, has been sliding into despair. The killing of at least 16 Somalis in a helicopter attack in Mogadishu yesterday and the revenge murder of at least two journalists would appear to seal its fate.

If the multinational force stays on, it does so as an army of occupation mired in a nasty guerrilla war of strikes, snipers and angry mobs. So unpopular is the United Nations in Mogadishu now that many UN soldiers and officials living in their heavily fortified compound urinate in bottles at night, rather than venture outside to the portable lavatories and risk falling within range of Somali snipers.

The special UN envoy, the retired US Admiral Jonathan Howe, leaves the safety of the high walls, topped with razor wire and UN troops, only in a convoy of armoured cars or by helicopter. The complex, which links the old US embassy to the university campus, is a sprawling fortress, the command centre for Unosom II, the UN operation in Somalia.

Twenty thousand troops from 27 countries, financed with dollars 1.5bn ( pounds 1.03bn), were to hold the line between Somali factions and begin rebuilding Somalia after two years of civil war, which had grown out of a 21-year corrupt dictatorship. Elections are supposed to be held by April 1995.

But a few hundred local fighters loyal to General Mohamed Farah Aideed have begun an urban guerrilla war against the UN. On 5 June, 24 Pakistanis were killed in an ambush; a few days later Pakistani troops gunned down scores of Somali demonstrators. Last week several Somalis employed by the UN were murdered - presumably by Aideed's men. Last weekend Tunisian troops killed a Somali, and gunmen wounded four Norwegians and three French soliders. They also hit an oil tanker in Mogadishu harbour and the UN helicopter port.

Relations between the UN and the aid agencies whose relief work it is supposed to be protecting have never been worse. Some aid agencies say they cannot get UN military escorts for relief convoys because some UN contingents are afraid to leave their compounds. Others say they do not want to be associated with anything in UN blue because it makes them targets for the gunmen. All complain that relief has become secondary to military objectives and that there has been almost no progress in making peace between the factions.

The pursuit of General Aideed seems to have become the main aim of the US-led UN operation. He and his allies have always been opposed to UN intervention, and his fighters (mainly from the Habr Gadir clan) have been blamed for the deaths of 35 UN soliders and the wounding of 137 since 5 June.

In return, Admiral Howe has issued a warrant for Aideed's arrest, and on Saturday announced a dollars 25,000 reward for information on his whereabouts. But it is Admiral Howe, living behind the compound walls, who appears more the prisoner. General Aideed moves around the city, although he is said to sleep in a different place each night, near the heavily populated Bakaraha market area and surrounded by militiamen, to ensure that any attempt to capture him would result in a politically unacceptable bloodbath.

Aideed's fighters have driven Italian troops out of a small section of western Mogadishu. UN arms sweeps routinely provoke popular resistance, with women and children manning barricades and hurling stones as the snipers fire.

The Italians discovered last week that tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopter gunships are no match for seasoned urban guerrilla fighters, unless they gun down crowds of civilians. A document produced by the US Liaison Office alleges that General Aideed's forces regularly use women and children as human shields, a claim reminiscent of American propaganda in Vietnam and Korea. There is, no doubt, some truth in it; but the blanket accusation appears to seek to justify the extremely liberal rules of engagement obeyed by Unosom troops - as on 17 June when they attacked Digfer hospital because gunmen were allegedly stationed there. The US special envoy claimed that when Pakistani troops fired on a pro-Aideed demonstration, killing up to 20 civilians, including a young boy, they had done nothing wrong.

The escalation of the killing is creating rifts within Unosom command. The Italians have lost three soldiers and have demanded greater say in military decisions. The dominant Americans responded with charges of Italian incompetence. The Saudi and United Arab Emirates contingents have already distanced themselves from the hardliners in Unosom, such as Admiral Howe, who believe the only way forward is to arrest General Aideed and crush his Habr Gadir militia.

When a warplane roars overhead, Admiral Howe has been known to comment approvingly on 'the sound of freedom'. But confrontation only plays into the hands of guerrilla warlords., General Aideed can be expected to continue to engage Unosom forces so that more civilian casualties caused by Unosom fire will strengthen his popular support, and the rising UN death toll will undermine the resolve of home governments.

The failure to catch or kill Aideed has been compounded by inept diplomacy and lack of sound advice from Somalis and expatriates with long experience in Somalia. Admiral Howe's attempts to arrest General Aideed have cut off the political option and leaves Unosom's credibility exposed. General Aideed is a ruthless and crafty military tactician and his continuing freedom will only buoy the renowned arrogance of his Habr Gadir people. Capturing him could be even worse, possibly sparking even stronger resistence from his fighters on the streets.

Admiral Howe's plan to isolate General Aideed, and persuade the Habr Gadir to abandon him for a different leader who could work with Unosom, has been proved to be based on a total misreading of Somali politics and culture. It has had the opposite effect: Habr Gadir elders had been organising to check what they considered General Aideed's abuse of power by failing to consult them; but now most have now rallied round him.

While Admiral Howe rightly points out that Unosom's operations to rebuild local and regional governments are going more smoothly in the rest of the country, failure in the capital will mean failure in Somalia.

Do the US and the UN have time to correct their mistakes in Somalia? US officials no longer use the 'as long as it takes' phrase when discussing how long American troops will stay in Somalia. Unofficial estimates in Washington are that it will cost dollars 1.3bn to keep US troops in Somalia this year - 50 per cent more than the whole US aid budget for Africa.

For the UN, nearly half its peace-keeping budget of dollars 2.8bn goes on Somalia. Of the dollars 159m needed for humanitarian aid next financial year, only dollars 20m has so far been raised. Are countries prepared to fund an operation that appears to be making no progress but puts their troops in the firing line?

The only way to restore UN credibility is for Admiral Howe's militaristic approach, and his attempts to kill or arrest General Aideed, to be dropped. A trusted outsider must be appointed to restart political and disarmament talks that will bring together all clans and factions, including the Habr Gadir. But this remote prospect would require a complete change of attitude on the part of the UN.

(Photograph omitted)