France tries to ease Somali deadlock


Warlords hold last-ditch talks before UN takeover


Mark Huband in Mogadishu and Lucy Hannon in Addis Ababa

The Guardian, 7 December 1992


LEADERS of Somalia’s two main warring factions are considering holding talks to try to end their political deadlock as up to 30,000 foreign troops start arriving in the famine-stricken country this week to guard food convoys.

Senior diplomatic sources confirmed yesterday that France has been pressing General Mohamed Farah Aideed and Somalia’s interim president, All Mahdi Mohamed, to meet before the current deadlock leads the United Nations to pursue plans to establish a UN transitional government in Somalia.

The sources confirmed that the rival leaders had each appointed 15 of their supporters to a joint commission which will meet today and tomorrow to discuss the agenda for a meeting which is expected to be held on Thursday in Mogadishu.

The first visible evidence of these contacts came yesterday when, for the first time in a month, relief grain was trucked out of the port in south Mogadishu controlled by Gen Aideed’s forces and driven to the north of the city where Mr Ali Mahdi’s gunmen hold sway.

The French minister for health and humanitarian affairs, Bernard Kouchner, engineered the rapid pace of discussions at lengthy meetings held with the two factions during a visit to Mogadishu on Saturday.

He told both leaders that if they did not patch up their differences, then famine and rampant insecurity would take the initiative out of their hands. France is believed to be preparing the ground for a symbolic gesture of reconciliation by the two leaders, though details have not been disclosed.

France is being used as a conduit for messages between both leaders and the United States, which is expected to send an advance party of 1,800 Marines into Somalia tomorrow.

The US is apparently showing some reluctance to allow the discussions to influence its plans for what will amount to an occupation of Somalia.

No UN or relief agency staff in Somalia have been consulted by the US military over its plans, despite the key role the organisations play in distributing the food the US troops have been sent to protect.

Seventy American air force personnel are due in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, today to assess airport facilities and organise plans for US flights into neighbouring Somalia.

Ethiopia is to be used as a secondary staging point and to provide back-up for some of the international forces in the Somali operation.

The Ethiopian government has offered landing rights and air space, but President Meles Zenawi has warned that the international community should be careful not to “trample on the dignity of the Somali people”.

He called for careful consideration of the long-term consequences and regional implications of the operation.

Ethiopia is hoping to win credit with the West. But it also hopes for help in dealing with problems in its own regions bordering Somalia. There are fears that armed Somali groups and heavy weapons will spill over the border.

The disintegration of the country has already had an enormous impact on Ethiopia, a country recuperating from 17 years of civil war and still facing insecurity and famine. More than two million ethnic Somalis live in the east and Ogaden regions, and hundreds of thousands of refugees and returnees are struggling with famine just next to the border.

A government minister said the country would still welcome genuine refugees. “Any civilian fleeing hell is welcome to come to somewhere which is maybe only a little better than hell itself,” said Dr Abdul Majid Hussein.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited