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Somali Frees American Pilot, Expects Reciprocal Response

By Keith B. Richburg
The Washington Post

MOGADISHU

Somali militia leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid announced the release of a captured U.S. pilot and a Nigerian peace keeper Thursday but made clear he hoped for a reciprocal gesture from the United Nations, which holds more than a dozen Aidid supporters.

In his first public appearance in four months, during which he eluded a massive U.S. manhunt, Aidid said his Somali National Alliance faction, in releasing the two prisoners unconditionally, was responding to President Clinton's policy shift and bowing to international opinion.

Aidid, dressed in a pin-striped shirt and red tie and looking fit and relaxed, said at his news conference here, "The U.S. has now decided to adopt a new policy to correct the past mistakes."

The release marked the first major success for the Clinton administration's new policy of negotiation and dialogue with Aidid.

In Washington, Clinton told a news conference: "I want to ... emphasize that we made no deals to secure the release of Chief Warrant Officer (Michael) Durant." He added that the latest development "demonstrates that we are moving in the right direction and that we are making progress."

Hours after the Aidid press conference, at a villa in the south Mogadishu neighborhood he controls, Durant and Nigerian Umar Shantali were released to the custody of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Durant, whose videotaped interrogation by Somali militiamen shocked the American public, looked tired. He grimaced in pain as he lay, covered with a pink-flowered sheet, on a stretcher and was carried into the back of a Red Cross vehicle. He declined to speak to reporters, but an American military doctor said later that the pilot was "fine, basically," although suffering from a broken bone in his face, a compressed fracture of his second vertebra, a fracture in his right leg and superficial bullet wounds on the left arm and shoulder. Doctors in Mogadishu were confident that Durant could return to flying duty.

"I think that he was taken well care of," said the doctor, Maj. John Holcomb, who added that Durant had been tended to by a physician who put the pilot's right leg in a splint and gave him antibiotics to ward off infection from his open wounds. Holcomb said the pilot was overcome with emotion after his release, crying on occasion, and that he spent 10 minutes talking to his wife by satellite telephone.

Durant, 32, who was captured after his helicopter was shot down by Aidid's forces Oct. 3, is scheduled to be flown Friday to a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

The freed Nigerian, Umar Shantali, 22, walked into a Red Cross vehicle limping and using a cane for support. Shantali was seized on Sept. 5, after Aidid's militia force ambushed his unit, killing seven Nigerian U.N. peace keepers and wounding seven others.

The release of the two soldiers also marked a personal victory for the Clinton administration's diplomatic trouble-shooter, former ambassador Robert Oakley, who walked into the Somalia imbroglio armed only with his high standing among Somalis and the promise that the United States was sincere about wanting to end four months of bloodshed in the capital.

Thursday's diplomatic breakthrough was a setback for the United Nations and its special envoy here, retired U.S. Navy admiral Jonathan T. Howe, who has been slow to acknowledge the dramatic shift in U.S. policy. Even Thursday, Howe did not concede what American officials have announced -- that U.S. and U.N. forces here have been ordered to halt offensive operations against Aidid as part of a de facto cease-fire.

One U.N. official, an American, said Thursday's release and Aidid's press conference, "make Oakley look good and Howe look like the loser. ... I don't see how Howe can stay here after this."

One of the African mediators involved in the arduous discussions that led to Thursday's release said today that an even tougher job would begin now: convincing the United Nations to respond to Aidid's gesture by releasing the Somalis in detention.

But Howe today refused to discuss the possibility that Somali prisoners in U.N. custody might soon be released and said that the United Nations' arrest order for Aidid still stands.

The United States and the United Nations remain deeply divided over whether Aidid remains the object of a military manhunt. With American forces standing down from offensive operations and Oakley telling reporters that diplomacy has now replaced confrontation, it would appear that the U.N. arrest order has been sidetracked as became evident by Aidid's surprise appearance before the international media.