U.N. says attack on warlord was cut back 2 days Backlash in Europe, U.S. feared over assault in Somalia

June 21, 1993|By Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft,Los Angeles Times

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The United Nations ground and air assault on a Somalian warlord's neighborhood last week was planned as a three-day operation but was cut short after one day, apparently because of fears of a public relations backlash in the United States and Europe, a U.N. official disclosed yesterday

The operation, televised worldwide, was designed to destroy the headquarters and firepower of Mohammed Farah Aidid, whom the United Nations blames for the deadly June 5 attack on Pakistani soldiers, and to send a signal of U.N. resolve to Somalia's faction leaders.

The strike Thursday on General Aidid's neighborhood was the fiercest of a series of attacks on weapons sites in Mogadishu in the past weeks.

But the show of force, criticized by some U.S. politicians as "an attempt to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer," was curtailed after 18 hours, on orders from U.N. headquarters in New York, according to a top-level U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That decision reflected concern among U.N. and U.S. officials here that although they may be starting to win the battle to save this country from famine and anarchy, the high-tech maneuvers -- and a cunning propaganda campaign by General Aidid -- may be costing them international support.

The U.S. liaison office here, which has kept a low profile since the United States handed over the operation to the United Nations last month, took the unusual step over the weekend of issuing an eight-page, single-spaced news release, stridently defending U.N. military operations against General Aidid and complaining that international reporting "and comments by some political leaders and academics" had been unfairly slanted against the United Nations.

"The story getting out is, unfortunately, inaccurate," Robert Gosende, the chief U.S. envoy in Somalia, said in an interview. He contended that the media have swallowed General Aidid's propaganda and glossed over the warlord's crimes.

"The outside world thinks this guy has a major following," Mr. Gosende added. "But, inside Somalia, most people will be delighted to see this guy gone. They know better than we do the atrocities he's committed."

U.N. commanders say the air attacks on General Aidid's militia have ended for now. Retired Navy Adm. Jonathan Howe, who heads the U.N. operation here, has ordered his troops to arrest General Aidid, but he says that maintaining law and order and restarting food relief deliveries to hungry Somalis in southern Mogadishu remains the top U.N. priority.

Officials say privately that they know General Aidid is holed up in a residential neighborhood of Mogadishu, surrounded by his gunmen. But they are reluctant to launch a ground attack to apprehend him for fear of civilian casualties.

Yesterday, relief efforts resumed peacefully at two of 20 food distribution sites in southern Mogadishu, guarded by U.N. troops from the United Arab Emirates.

A plan to resume distribution at nine other sites in the area was postponed until today because Pakistani troops, who have borne the brunt of General Aidid's attacks, wanted more time to look over the sites. Some said that they fear coming under sniper fire, a U.N. spokesman said.

The new U.S. public relations counteroffensive is designed to answer critics of the U.N. operation who have expressed concern that anti-U.N. sentiment is growing in Mogadishu after the June 13 clash with Pakistani soldiers that left at least 14 Somalian demonstrators dead.

U.S. diplomats believe that the massacre of Pakistani soldiers, which focused world attention again on this country, has been unfairly overshadowed by the deaths of the anti-U.N. protesters.

In a statement, the U.S. liaison office in Mogadishu recounted the June 5 attacks on U.N. forces, applauding "Pakistani bravery" in the face of "Aidid barbarism." The Pakistanis were assaulted at several locations, including two feeding stations. Twenty-four of the soldiers died. Some were severely mutilated.

For weeks before, in messages on his radio station and in pamphlets, General Aidid had called for the United Nations, and especially the United States, to leave the country. Analysts believe that General Aidid chose to launch the attacks once it became clear that U.N. plans for a negotiated settlement would prevent him from seizing power.

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