U.N. to send troops to Somalia in month U.S. exit may begin in Jan.,official says

December 12, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Starting within a month, up to 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers will be phased into Somalia, allowing U.S. combat forces to begin withdrawing by late January, a senior Pentagon official said last night.

Under the latest U.S. scenario, U.N.-commanded soldiers would enter and remain in particular sections of the country after U.S.-led multinational forces have established enough security for peacekeepers to remain there.

"We will set up a situation that other countries can just walk into and essentially assume control from us," said the official, who would not be identified.

The plan he outlined calls for considerable overlap in coming weeks among U.S. forces, other nations contributing to the coalition and the introduction of U.N. peacekeepers. There will not be a specific moment when the entire mission is suddenly turned over to the United Nations.

He did not set a date for introduction of the peacekeepers but predicted it would be well under way within a month, paving the way for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said yesterday in Brussels, Belgium, that "if everything goes well," the United States hopes to begin withdrawing troops "by the latter part of January," or about the time of Bill Clinton's inauguration as president. Mr. Cheney stuck to the Pentagon's estimate that all combat troops would likely be out in two to three months.

At the same time, the United States would keep up to 1,700 Marines off the coast, ready to help U.N. peacekeepers, and some specialized U.S. support troops would remain in the country, including combat engineers and water purification units, Mr. Cheney said.

Senior U.S. officials drew little distinction between the mission assumed by the U.S.-led coalition -- to create a secure environment for food and relief delivery -- and making Somalia safe enough for U.N. peacekeepers to maintain stability.

Either one involves pacification of Somalia's armed bands.

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, intent on not sending U.N. peacekeepers into a situation they couldn't control, asked this week for the United States to disarm the population, remove mines, suppress the drug trade and set up a police force before leaving.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali's hope is to start the difficult process of political reconciliation among warring Somalian tribes and to rebuild the shattered nation's economy.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali cannot command U.S. troops. The president -- Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton -- will ultimately determine when they are withdrawn. But the U.N. chief can exert strong leverage by, for instance, stalling the introduction of peacekeepers until he deems conditions to be safe.

His request was initially seen by some officials as a significant expansion in the U.S. role and drew a cool reaction.

"Our mission has not changed, and it remains the same as it was when we went in there," Lt. General Martin Brandtner said at the Pentagon yesterday afternoon. Another U.S. official said, "The feeling here is that we went in with a certain mission, and that's the one being pursued."

But the senior Pentagon official said later that many of Mr. Boutros-Ghali's concerns could be addressed. The core U.S. function is to move in quickly to different areas around the country to establish security, the official said.

Once this happens, other nations that have offered troops to the coalition could be assigned such tasks as mine-removal and police training.

The Pentagon said the potential for violence in Somalia could never be eliminated.

But he added, "That's not necessarily the goal. Right now we will put the lid on. The peacekeepers will keep the lid on."

"If they take over a situation that's pretty quiet, they'll be able to keep it quiet."

A U.N. force of up to 10,000 is substantially larger than the force of 3,500 planned by Mr. Boutros-Ghali before the United States offered to dispatch forces.

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