Somalis Free U.S. Pilot; Lawmakers Back Clinton Aims : Africa: President cites Durant’s release as sign his policy is working. Aidid surfaces, tells reporters it was goodwill gesture. Senators agree to accept March 31 pullout date.
Army helicopter pilot Michael J. Durant, badly battered but apparently in good spirits, was freed Thursday by Somali rebels after 11 days in captivity. President Clinton hailed Durant’s release as evidence that his new Somalia policy is working, while insisting that he had cut “no deals” to secure the airman’s freedom.
Hours later, on Capitol Hill, Clinton won at least a partial victory when the Senate passed a resolution to back the President’s aims for Somalia. The measure accepts Clinton’s March 31 date for withdrawal of American forces from the African nation but would force him to meet that deadline by withholding funding for the operation after that date.
The 76-23 vote to approve the resolution came early today, after three days of intense negotiations. It was the first time since the end of the Vietnam War that Congress has exercised its constitutional “power of the purse” to cut off appropriated funds for an American military venture abroad.
Somali clan leader Mohammed Farah Aidid, declaring in a Mogadishu press conference that “I am not a warlord,” said he ordered the release of Durant and Nigerian soldier Umar Shantali as a gesture of goodwill after appeals from the United Nations, the United States and African leaders.
Aidid summoned Red Cross representatives to a walled compound in Mogadishu, where they removed Durant and Shantali and transported them to a U.N. hospital in the Somali capital. The Red Cross aides, accompanied by a Swiss surgeon and mediators from Ethiopia and Eritrea, carried the American pilot out on a stretcher, a clean flowered sheet covering a severely broken leg. Durant winced in pain as he was moved but flashed a thumbs-up sign to onlookers. He declined to speak to reporters.
Several hours after learning of Durant’s release, Clinton called a news conference to welcome the act as vindication of his week-old Somalia policy, which combines a reinforced military presence with a new political initiative designed to end factional fighting and attacks on U.N. and U.S. peacekeepers.
“That demonstrates that we are moving in the right direction and that we are making progress,” Clinton declared. “Now we have to maintain our commitment to finishing the job we started.”
Clinton said that he made no implicit or explicit promises to Aidid to win Durant’s freedom.
“I want to . . . emphasize that we made no deals to secure the release of Chief Warrant Officer Durant,” Clinton said. “We had strong resolve. We showed that we were willing to support the resumption of the peace process and we showed that we were determined to protect our soldiers and to react, when appropriate, by strengthening our position there.”
However, Clinton seemed to retreat further from the previously stated American intention of capturing Aidid, whom the Administration and the United Nations hold responsible for the June 5 killing of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers. Clinton held open the possibility of Aidid’s participating in Somali reconciliation talks and possibly even becoming the nation’s leader.
Clinton accepted responsibility for Somalia policy having gone badly awry in recent weeks, culminating in the deaths Oct. 3 of 18 U.S. soldiers in an operation that captured two Aidid lieutenants and other followers.
“The United States being a police officer in Somalia was turned into the waging of conflict and a highly personalized battle which undermined the political process. That is what was wrong and that is what we have attempted to correct in the last few days,” the President said.
He said that he had called off the military manhunt for Aidid and was open to other possible ways of going about fixing responsibility for the slayings of the Pakistanis.
The United States did not dispatch more than 11,000 troops to Somalia “to prove we can win military battles,” Clinton said.
“No one seriously questions the fact that we could clean out that whole section of Mogadishu (controlled by Aidid) with minimum loss to ourselves if that’s what we wanted to do,” he said. “The reports today say that 300 Somalis were killed and 700 more were wounded in the firefight that cost our people their lives last week. That is not our mission. We did not go there to do that.”
Clinton also said it is not the United States’ job to rebuild Somalia or to create a workable political structure out of the current chaos. Washington will not dictate Mogadishu’s political future or who will play a part in it, he said.
“It is not for the United States or for the United Nations to eliminate whole groups of people from having a role in Somalia’s future,” Clinton said.
Clinton said that it will be a U.N. decision whether to release 32 Aidid aides captured by U.N. forces. Their release was demanded by Aidid while his forces held Durant.
In an interview with a group of Western reporters in a hide-out in Mogadishu, Aidid said that he expects the U.N. force to free the detained members of his group, the Somali National Alliance.
Aidid, appearing relaxed and wearing a crisp striped shirt and tie, said that “respecting the international opinion,” his militia decided to release Durant and Shantali, whom he referred to as “the two prisoners of war.”
He said that he wants the United States to reciprocate by freeing his followers.
Aidid, leaning on a walking stick as he spoke, welcomed Washington’s shift in Somalia policy as a decision to “correct its past mistakes.”
After winning his freedom, Durant was carried into the 46th U.S. Army Field Hospital in Mogadishu, where fellow soldiers cheered him.
Maj. John Holcomb, an Army physician, examined the 32-year-old pilot to determine the extent of his injuries, which included a compound fracture of his leg, a broken right orbital bone just below the eye, a compressed fracture of his second vertebra and a superficial gunshot wound on his left arm and shoulder. Holcomb said that he expects the wounds to heal without complications.
After the exam, Durant called his wife, Lorrie, at Ft. Campbell, Ky. She will be flying to meet him when he is airlifted to Landstuhl, Germany, for further treatment. That trip is expected today.
Later in the day, Clinton called Durant to express his gratitude for the pilot’s “service and bravery,” the White House said. Durant told the President he had been well treated during his detention and looked forward to his return home.
The Defense Department also announced Thursday that it is sending an additional 1,000 Army personnel to Somalia, beyond the new troops announced last week, which will bring the total U.S. force to about 11,400, including 3,600 Marines stationed aboard ships offshore. The Senate compromise on the Somalia resolution thwarts an effort by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to require Clinton to remove all troops from Somalia by Feb. 1. But it also forces the President to sharply narrow the Somalia mission and to accept an absolute cutoff of funds after March 31.
Besides terminating the funding for the Somalia mission, the resolution limits the tasks to be performed by U.S. troops until March 31 to protecting themselves and other U.S. personnel in Somalia and providing logistic and security support to ensure that supply lines remain open for the U.N. forces distributing relief aid.
It says that a “limited number” of American troops could remain in Somalia after March 31, but only in such small numbers as would be necessary to protect U.S. diplomatic personnel and “noncombat” American U.N. advisers.
Times staff writer Art Pine contributed to this article.