Clinton looks for a way out of Somalia President, advisers confer on options

October 06, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia and Mark Matthews | Richard H. P. Sia and Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau Staff writer Carl Cannon contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- As U.S. reinforcements began arriving in Somalia last night, President Clinton met with his advisers to consider how to extricate himself and the country from a humanitarian mission that has turned into a nightmare.

The meeting took place against a backdrop of mounting U.S. casualties and ghastly television images of their treatment by Somalis. Those images have aroused demands from lawmakers in both parties that Mr. Clinton consult with Congress and explain the current mission in Somalia -- or get out.

A late afternoon briefing at the Capitol for about 200 senators and representatives by Defense Secretary Les Aspin and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher did little to soothe congressional anger.

"I learned nothing I didn't already know. Anyone who watches the local and national news would get more information," snapped an irate Sen. John S. McCain, the Arizona Republican and one of the most prominent critics of Mr. Clinton's Somalia policy.

Mr. Clinton returned to the White House from a California trip for a strategy session with top national security advisers and senior military leaders.

Late last night, a high-ranking White House official said that the president was asking "some pretty tough questions" of his foreign policy advisers, including the basic one of how U.S. Army personnel found themselves in a firefight without sufficient reinforcements.

"He reviewed the options on where to go to make sure the troops are protected as you leave," said the official.

Asked if the president would consider leaving immediately -- especially in light of the fact that there are U.S. captives in Somalia -- this official replied, "There are one or more prisoners there, but that is not going to be the centerpiece of our policy."

Questioned explicitly if the president would conceivably order an evacuation of Somalia while American soldiers were still held in that country, this official reiterated, "You can't have the entire policy driven by that single question."

A key question is whether the United States would negotiate for the release of prisoners.

Mr. Clinton also must decide whether the United States should deploy even more troops and equipment to "neutralize" forces ++ loyal to Somalian warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid, Pentagon officials said.

Officials declined to comment yesterday on reports that up to eight Americans were being held by General Aidid's supporters.

Mogadishu remained uneasy yesterday in the aftermath of the 15-hour battle late Sunday and early Monday that left 12 U.S. soldiers dead, 78 wounded and at least six missing.

Television stations in the Somalian capital continued to broadcast vivid pictures of the body of a U.S. soldier being

dragged through the streets.

Another videotape showed a captured American pilot, Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant, visibly in pain, his face scratched and bruised.

U.N. seeking release

Capt. Tim McDavitt, a U.N. military spokesman, said the agency was trying to secure the release of the prisoners, but he refused to give any specifics about the number of missing soldiers.

The Clinton administration has said it wants to encourage development of political institutions in Somalia and work through the United Nations to hasten a withdrawal of the roughly 4,550 U.S. troops currently there as part of a 28,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force.

However, the administration has said that U.S. troops would not leave the country until security in the capital city of Mogadishu has improved.

Yesterday, a new condition was added: the release of any captured Americans.

"The United States clearly is not going to leave a situation in which a United States individual is being held captive," said Michael McCurry, the State Department spokesman.

Aspin deferred action

A senior Pentagon official confirmed that, in early September, Defense Secretary Aspin had deferred action on a military request for the deployment of heavy tanks and other armored vehicles for the Somalian operation.

But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there seemed to be "no great sense of urgency" at the time, so it was put aside.

Asked if the presence of M1A1 main battle tanks would have prevented U.S. casualties in last weekend's bloody firefight in Mogadishu, a general familiar with the operation replied, "Yes, clearly."

Not an escalation

Although administration officials reiterated that sending extra troops and weaponry did not signal an escalation of the offensive against General Aidid, a senior military planner said, "This is a demonstration they're willing to send more. It's not necessarily the end."

If the fresh troops, tanks and artillery gunships are expected to join Army forces already there to create a "secure environment" in Mogadishu, there won't be enough, military officials said.

"A mechanized infantry company is not able to sustain itself and operate for a long time without reinforcements of some sort," one planner said.

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