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U.N. Council Votes to End Somalia Mission : Africa: All peacekeepers are to leave by March 31. But getting out could prove difficult.


WASHINGTON — The international intervention in Somalia--once a prideful and altruistic mission for both the United States and the United Nations--headed toward an ignominious end Friday as the Security Council voted unanimously to withdraw all 15,000 peacekeepers there by March 31.

Although many council members, including American Ambassador Madeleine Albright, insisted publicly that the world should not brand the mission a failure, a Security Council ambassador said in private: "We are doing exactly what the Americans did in Vietnam--declaring victory and getting out."

Getting out, however, could prove difficult. Security has deteriorated in recent months as Somali warlords, still stubbornly resisting attempts at national reconciliation, have engaged in fierce firefights. U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has said he will need air and naval units to protect the peacekeepers as they depart.

If President Clinton heeds the secretary general's request and sends military units to Somalia as a cover for withdrawal, it will mark the first use of American forces there since they were withdrawn last March, about five months after a clash that killed 18 U.S. troops.

The most sobering assessment of the mission's difficulties came from British Ambassador David Hannay, who told the council: "It is in many ways a tragedy that we have been forced to take this decision without having achieved the U.N.'s objectives and while the future of Somalia remains so uncertain.

"But the situation on the ground leaves us little option," he declared. "We can no longer justify maintaining 15,000 troops in Somalia when they fulfill little function other than to protect themselves."

Hannay said that the U.N. "involvement in Somalia has been a sad story of noble aims subverted and undermined by a fundamental lack of cooperation from those the U.N. went to help."

Many U.N. officials, including Boutros-Ghali, have long resented the Clinton decision to withdraw from Somalia and have blamed the mission's failure there on the Administration's refusal to stick it out. U.S. officials, on the other hand, have castigated Boutros-Ghali for overreaching and trying to do far too much in Somalia. The Americans, in fact, have urged the United Nations to save money and leave even before March 31.

Albright told the council that even if the Somalis fail to put a national government in place by March 31, "the United Nations effort will not have been a failure." She said the United Nations had saved "hundreds of thousands of lives . . . from starvation" and had "offered a helping hand and, in the face of often-violent opposition, firmly held that hand open for over two years, ready and willing to help."

The ambassador said that, although the peacekeepers would leave as soon as possible, "the Somalis need not fear the world will turn its back on them." But, she added quickly, "the U.N. peacekeeping role is over."

In addition to calling for the withdrawal of all U.N. forces "in a secure and orderly manner as soon as possible" before March 31, the resolution urged the Somali warring factions to negotiate a cease-fire and the formation of a national government. The resolution recognizes, however, that there has been a lack of progress in the past in the Somali peace process and in national reconciliation.

The depressed mood of the Security Council reflected a steep fall from the heady mood of December, 1992, when the Security Council accepted the offer of then-President George Bush to send 25,500 troops to Somalia to lead a joint task force to save it from starvation. Video images of starving children had galvanized a public demand for relief and prompted Bush to act.

Although the troops quickly ensured that food and medicine would reach those afflicted, the mission soon became mired in controversy.

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