Aidid faction holds peace rally to change image




MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP)—About 1,000 Somalis turned out for a peace demonstration Sunday as part of a campaign by Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid to change his warlord image.

Some chanted ‘‘Down with the U.N.!’‘ and ‘‘Down with Clinton!’‘ but most of the people seemed content to listen to speakers and sing along to a lilting, traditional poem.

Aidid did not attend the rally. But top officials of his Somalia National Alliance told the crowd they want peace and blamed the United Nations for the conflict that has racked southern Mogadishu since early June.

The United Nations has blamed Aidid for deadly ambushes and mine attacks on its forces, saying he started the fighting to shore up his once-sagging support.

The attacks have driven divisions into the multinational peacekeeping force in Somalia and led to changes in the force’s policies, while raising Aidid’s stature among many in his clan as a wronged freedom-fighter.

The violence has largely abated since Aidid announced a unilateral cease-fire a little over a week ago. He emerged from four months of hiding for a news conference Thursday to foreshadow the release of two captives, U.S. helicopter pilot Michael Durant and Nigerian trooper Umar Shantali.

On Sunday, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, said the world body has called off its search for Aidid, though it still hoped to hold him accountable for the attacks on U.N. troops.

Albright said on NBC’s ‘‘Meet the Press’‘ that ‘‘we are pressing the political track very hard’‘ in an effort to resolve the crisis in Somalia and added that she was ‘‘feeling pretty good’‘ about the progress.

But she added, ‘‘We cannot afford to have those that attack peacekeeping missions not ultimately be held accountable.’‘

In Mogadishu, U.N. spokesman Maj. David Stockwell said Sunday that Aidid ‘‘is still vulnerable to detention. … If he makes himself vulnerable, then we will detain him.’‘ He spoke to reporters in the capital.

Germany announced it would withdraw its 1,700 troops from Somalia early next year, around the same time U.S. troops plan to pull out of the African nation.

German sent troops to Somalia in July—in its first major commitment of troops overseas since World War II—with the understanding that they would not be forced into combat.

Aidid now is trying to sell himself as a diplomat and peace-broker in an effort to re-enter the country’s puzzle-like political picture.

Although he has continued some of his anti-United Nations rhetoric in recent broadcasts on his clandestine radio station, Aidid has toned down the stridency and spoken of reconciliation.

At the same time the peace rally was being held, some 50 members of the Quick Reaction Force, the U.SArmy group that has been relied on as the mission’s iron fist, held target practice a few miles away.

Thousands of U.S. troops are coming back to Somalia to step up security in the wake of an Oct. 3 firefight that killed 18 American soldiers, a Malaysian peacekeeper and perhaps 300 or so Somalis.

Such peace rallies have been held each Thursday and Sunday for the last couple of weeks, and speakers urged people to keep protesting.

The Aidid crowd this Sunday was more sedate and good-humored than some of the volatile mobs that have proven so unpredictable—and occasionally deadly—in the past.

There were chants of ‘‘Down with Clinton!’‘ even though they were chanting ‘‘Up with Clinton!’‘ last week, perhaps indicating displeasure with the fact that 70 Somalis remain detained following Durant’s unilateral release.

The rhetoric was even mixed with laughter when one speaker said Durant was given a sarong and a Somali National Alliance T-shirt before his release on Thursday.

Women, wearing their usual brightly colored skirts and long scarves, and children made up most of the crowd, which was swelled by truckloads of people brought in from outlying areas.

Some waved the blue-with-white-star Somali national flag, while others carried portraits of Aidid. Vendors sold thick slices of watermelon from hand-pushed wooden wheelbarrows.

Referring to a July 12 attack by a mob in which four journalists were killed, one speaker reiterated Aidid’s recent message that media should be allowed to work.

‘‘It was kind of an accident, not planned,’‘ the unidentified speaker said. ‘‘We are very sorry about that. That was a big mistake. Journalists are not fighting us.’‘