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Clinton Orders Rangers Home From Somalia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton on Tuesday ordered the withdrawal of the elite U.S. Army Rangers who had been sent to capture warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, underscoring the Administration’s new effort to find a political solution in Somalia.

The announcement of the move came in a brief White House statement saying the Rangers will return to the United States within the next few days as part of a “rotation of forces” made possible by the arrival of two Marine expeditionary units on ships off the Somali coast.

The Defense Department said the returning group will include 750 Rangers--400 deployed to Somalia in August with the primary mission of hunting down Aidid and his top lieutenants, 250 more sent as reinforcements two weeks ago and 100 Ranger combat support troops.

The White House denied any suggestion that the action was part of a deal negotiated with Aidid’s organization by Robert B. Oakley, Clinton’s new personal envoy in Somalia, who has been trying to set up machinery for hammering out a political settlement.

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“There was no deal,” Dee Dee Myers, the President’s press secretary, told reporters at a briefing Tuesday. She described the withdrawal order Tuesday as “a confidence-building measure that we hope will help to keep things moving in the right direction.”

Nevertheless, officials conceded privately that the withdrawal is part of a series of measures to convince Aidid that Washington now is interested in pursuing a political solution to the Somali problem, in hopes of maintaining the truce that has prevailed for the last week.

The dispatch of the Rangers was one of the Administration’s most conspicuous steps in the hunt for Aidid, who had been the object of a U.N. arrest order that followed a June 5 ambush by his militiamen of Pakistani U.N. troops in which 24 Pakistanis were killed.

About 100 Rangers were on just such a mission Oct. 3 when they were ambushed by Aidid supporters; 18 U.S. soldiers and at least 350 Somali militiamen and civilians were killed. The debacle forced the Administration to reverse U.S. policy in Somalia.

Although the White House announcement did not say so, U.S. officials confirmed that the withdrawal will include a handful of members of the Delta Force--a special Army unit trained in extracting hostages from hostile situations--who were sent to help capture Aidid.

Aidid, a former Somali general, eluded U.S. forces for almost three months by constantly moving from house to house using the homes of his relatives or top lieutenants for cover. U.S. forces ultimately captured three top Aidid aides but never caught up with the general.

Over the last week, Oakley has been busily arranging a cease-fire with Aidid’s forces and has begun soliciting help from leaders of neighboring African countries in an effort to devise a face-saving solution for the United States and to rebuild Somalia’s political structure.

Officials said Tuesday that Oakley apparently has made progress in several of these initiatives and that they expect to see a breakthrough sometime in the next few days. The ambassador is back in Washington after two weeks of intensive negotiations.

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The U.S. policy toward Aidid has been to suspend the manhunt for the general--as well as all offensive military operations in Somalia--while sending more troops to the country to help restore security, particularly in the capital city of Mogadishu.

Officials have indicated that although U.S. forces will not pass up a chance to catch the Somali general if he appears in public--say, at a political rally--they will not actively seek to take him into custody. In return, Aidid has kept the truce and removed roadblocks in Mogadishu.

Asked Tuesday whether the Administration has “given up” on the search for Aidid, Clinton said only that “we’re in a stand-down position” and that the United States is “pursuing the negotiations to try to get a political solution.”

But Peter Tarnoff, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told a Senate committee Tuesday that the United States “will not be party to attempts to apprehend” Aidid “because we feel it is important to give the political reconciliation a chance.”

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The United States has indicated that it will try to set up some sort of independent international team to investigate allegations that Aidid was behind the June 5 killing of the Pakistanis and recommend “appropriate” action.

But officials conceded that any such action is months away and probably would not be completed until after March 31, the deadline by which Clinton has agreed to withdraw U.S. forces from Somalia.

The two 1,800-member Marine expeditionary units that arrived off the Somali coast Tuesday were part of a 6,300-person contingent that Clinton dispatched to Mogadishu on Oct. 7 in response to demands by Congress that he outline a strategy for a U.S. pullout.

The extra forces are intended to bolster security in Mogadishu to pave the way for forces from other U.N. countries to replace U.S. troops. That was supposed to have taken place last May, but the United Nations was unable to assemble enough soldiers by that date.

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