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United Nations Takes Lead in Somalia Crisis

New York talks signal test case for new strategy on internal disputes

THE Feb. 12 UN-sponsored cease-fire negotiations between members of Somalia's fighting clans reflect a changing mood at the United Nations.

Given the UN's more aggressive role as a peacebroker, the new secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has encouraged the Security Council to focus its attention on the crisis in the horn of Africa.

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"There is now a wider recognition in the Security Council that internal disputes can have international implications," Undersecretary-General James Jonah told reporters in Nairobi recently. Direct UN intervention

The Somalia talks at UN headquarters in New York provide a practical test for such UN efforts.

In the future, Mr. Jonah said, instead of waiting for regional organizations to act to quell internal disputes, the UN is more likely to get involved.

Since January 1990, when rebels defeated former Somali dictator Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, most Somali factions have recognized Ali Mahdi as the interim president.

But Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid, the chairman of the rebel United Somali Congress, claims Mr. Mahdi was never properly elected. General Aidid and Mahdi are both members of the USC, and of the same Somali clan; but they are from different subclans.

Since last November, heavy shelling and gunfire in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, have taken the lives of several thousand people, mostly civilians, and many of them women and children. Reaction to Somalia

The UN has come under considerable criticism in the international press, and from Somalis, for not acting sooner. Jonah admits that "events in Eastern Europe, in Yugoslavia, and the former Soviet Union did divert attention from Somalia's agony."

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But Secretary-General Bou-tros-Ghali, who frequently dealt with the Somali issue as a senior official in the Egyptian government before he took up his new post in January, "made known his views to the Security Council members that something has to be done about Somalia," Jonah explained.

In response, the Security Council passed Resolution 733 Jan. 23 calling for an arms embargo against Somalia. In the resolution, the Council urged all parties to the conflict to agree to a cease-fire and asked the secretary-general to increase UN humanitarian aid to the East African country. The Council also urged the parties to take steps to ensure the safety of UN personnel sent to Somalia to provide aid.

The new direction at the UN has earned mixed responses.

"It's easier said than done," said one UN official, who asked not to be named. "It will take time." But, the official added, "maybe the Security Council is trying, since the whole world order is changing. I would not be surprised if the Security Council takes a more strong, direct role."

"I am emotionally affected - and ashamed - by what is happening in my country," wrote Fatun Mohamed Hassen, the charge d'affaires at the Somali UN mission, in a letter to current Council President Thomas Pickering last month. "The situation cries out for the help of the United Nations."

Though neither Mahdi nor Aidid are taking part in the UN talks, each has sent three representatives. In response to a request from the secretary-general, both sides have assured Jonah their delegations have full authority to make any decisions.

Representatives of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the Arab League are to meet with Boutros-Ghali Feb. 12 in the first phase of the talks. Representatives of the two factions are to begin late that evening or the following day.

Mohamed Ali Mohamoud, assistant minister for Water and Mineral Resources in the Madhi government, backs the UN-brokered talks, and says the UN should send peacekeeping troops.

"Each clan has its own army and its own military wing," Mr. Mohamoud says. "There is no clan that can disarm the other clan. So I think the peacekeeping force is very important ... to disarm the civilians."

Despite some internal UN discussions for sending such a force, there has been no decision to do so. Francois Giuliani, the secretary-general's spokesman, says the terms of the cease-fire would have to be reached first and questions about more aid would probably need to be resolved. Aidid shuns UN troops

Jonah said Boutros-Ghali did not want to recommend sending UN peacekeeping troops "unless all the actors agree." So far, Aidid has strongly objected to the idea.

In the past, the UN has waited for regional organizations like the OAU to move first regarding civil wars. But the OAU turned a blind eye for years to civil wars in Uganda and Ethiopia, citing its charter against involvement in internal affairs.

"If you talk with the OAU, the Islamic Conference, Arab League, or other regional organizations, they will tell you: 'Well, this is a purely internal, civil strife, Jonah says.

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