Captive U.S. soldier freed by Aidid’s forces



MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP)—U.S. helicopter pilot Michael Durant, battered but buoyant, returned to freedom Thursday on a stretcher after 11 days as a captive of a Somali warlord.

The United States said no deal was made for the release of Durant, captured in an Oct. 3 battle between U.N. troops and Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s fighters, or of a Nigerian peacekeeper captured in a Sept. 5 gunfight.

However, Aidid emerged with an enhanced stature as a result of the release, which he came out of hiding to announce at a news conference. He appeared confident and wore a crisply pressed blue-striped shirt and red tie.

The freeing of Durant led to more calls from Congress for speeding the departure of U.S. troops from Somalia. President Clinton indicated he might be flexible on his March 31 deadline for withdrawal.

Durant, 32, clenched his teeth and his eyes teared as he was carried by stretcher from a walled compound and handed over to Red Cross representatives. He clutched a note from his wife and parents that the Red Cross gave him just before his release. He declined to speak to reporters.

Dr. John Holcomb of the 46th U.S. Army Field Hospital, who examined Durant, said the pilot suffered a broken leg, broken cheekbone and a fractured back, but appeared to have been treated fairly well by his captors. The leg was in a splint, but had not been set and was quite painful, Holcomb said.

‘‘Mike is fine, basically,’‘ Holcomb said, adding that Durant ‘‘cried a little bit—tears of joy.’‘

He said most of Durant’s injuries probably were sustained when a rocket-propelled grenade blasted the tail off his helicopter, although Durant said in an interview while in captivity that he had been badly beaten by a crowd and stripped naked after his capture.

Officials said Durant would be flown Friday to a U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany, and then taken to a military hospital in Landstuhl, where his wife, Lorrie, would join him.

The Nigerian prisoner, Trooper Umar Shantali, was released from the same compound as Durant. His left leg was bandaged and he walked with a cane. In captivity for nearly six weeks, he appeared healthy and in good spirits.

He was taken to a Swedish relief hospital in Mogadishu.

Aidid, who has eluded capture since June despite a U.N. ransom of $25,000, looked more like a political candidate than a wanted guerrilla during his appearance Thursday.

The news conference itself was a sign of how things have changed in the Somali capital. No longer a fugitive, Aidid emerged with an enhanced image and could even become a political player.

Appearing relaxed, Aidid called for the unconditional release of 32 Somalis detained by the United Nations, including three top aides and his chief arms supplier. Aidid earlier made their release a condition for releasing Durant.

Clinton said it was ‘‘up to the U.N.’‘ whether Aidid’s lieutenants would be released. ‘‘We made no deals to secure the release of Chief Warrant Officer Durant,’‘ Clinton said at a news conference in Washington.

U.N. officials in New York said the Somali prisoners are in ‘‘preventive detention’‘ and are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis. They said some have been released.

Asked whether he still wanted Aidid’s arrest, Clinton did not give a clear ‘‘yes’‘ or ‘‘no.’‘ He said a U.N. resolution had called for the general’s capture ‘‘and we ought to pursue it, (but) there may be other ways to do it and I’m open to that.’‘

Clinton called Durant’s release one of the ‘‘hopeful actions’‘ he said indicated U.S. policy in Somalia was ‘‘moving in the right direction and making progress.’‘

Aidid suffered heavy casualties in the Oct. 3 battle that killed at least 300 Somalis and left more than 700 wounded. He declared a unilateral cease-fire on Saturday, leading some to believe he is trying to buy time to regroup by suspending hostilities and releasing prisoners.

That Aidid was confident enough to invite journalists to a news conference was a sign he no longer felt threatened by U.N. forces. But he said he would remain in hiding.

Maj. David Stockwell, a U.N. military spokesman, said the United Nations stopped actively searching for Aidid several days ago to encourage the diplomatic initiative.

However, Rtd. Adm. Jonathan Howe, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative to Somalia, said he could not meet Aidid’s demand for assurances that the United Nations would not hunt him down.

‘‘No, I can’t give him an official assurance,’‘ Howe, an American, told a news conference in Mogadishu. ‘‘But we are focusing our efforts on a peaceful conclusion.’‘

Howe called for talks with Aidid’s Somali National Alliance, and said U.N. relations with Aidid were like ‘‘sniffing dogs, circling each other.’‘

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali held talks Thursday with leaders of African, Arab and Islamic groups to enlist their help in ending the conflict in Somalia.

Boutros-Ghali met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, chairman of the Organization of African Unity, and with officials of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference. Somalia has links to all three groups.