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EDITIONS
Saturday, 14 December, 2002, 14:43 GMT
Up close with Somalia's warlords
Somali guerrillas
Warlords - and their supporters - control Somalia
A peace conference in Kenya concluded recently with the signing of a truce which it is hoped will bring lasting peace to neighbouring Somalia.

However, the BBC's Mike Thomson says that not everyone is confident that the warlords - who have ruled Somalia for the last decade - are committed to burying their differences.

Before getting into my taxi, I'd been toying with the idea of hiring an armoured car or perhaps even a tank to take me into the Kenyan hill town of Eldoret.

After all, where else in the world could I find so many notorious men in one place?

But after a nervous and bumpy drive through the fading light I discovered that the only battles here are over hotels. Some 300 delegates had been invited by those organising the conference, but nearly 1,000 have turned up.

Finally I found a room at the unlikely named Wagon Wheel Hotel - only to be woken a few hours later by the telephone.

A voice told me that the president of Puntland, a semi-autonomous area of northern Somalia, would do an interview with me in an hour's time - and it wasn't wise to keep him waiting.

I was driven down a series of narrow dusty roads to the steel gates of a large, walled villa on the outskirts of town.

The taxi swung past a uniformed guard and into a paved forecourt filled with people.

A big man in a Hugo Boss sweatshirt, who claimed to have lived in Essex, ushered me into a neat, fussily decorated room.

A stern-looking figure in a grey suit rose to shake my hand. Abdullah Yusef, the man widely tipped here to be the future leader, of a federal Somalia, motioned for me to sit down.

Presidential confusion

I began by asking him why there appear to be two presidents of Puntland attending the conference.

The evening before an elderly man called Jama Ali Jama, had told me that he was the president of Puntland.

Mogadishu
Somalia has been devastated by 11 years of war

"Simple", replied Mr Yusef. "That man only became president after launching a coup d'etat to oust me, the legitimate president. So I called in my army and ousted him."

"But", I protested, "Mr Jama Ali Jama told me that you were the one that launched the coup d'etat after he was elected to replace you!"

Brows around the room became furrowed. Then a flurry of coughing broke the silence.

Mr Yusef flicked his wrist contemptuously and went on to accuse his opponent of having al-Qaeda connections and an unhealthy lust for power.

"So", I asked him, "would you accept the presidency of a new united Somalia should it be offered?"

"I would consider it," he replied, "but only for the good of my country."

'Essex man' in exile

I'd just got back into my taxi when word reached me that the son of the famous warlord, General Mohamad Aideed, who was blamed for the gruesome deaths of 18 US servicemen during the ill-fated Operation Restore Hope, might be available for interview.

Clad in designer sunglasses, this bald headed warlord looks like he's strolled off the set of a Mad Max movie

It was suggested that after seeing Hussein Aideed, I could stop by at the Wagon Wheel restaurant to meet the warlord who killed his father.

It was then that the man with Essex connections leaned in through the window and whispered the name "General Morgan."

The infamous General Morgan can currently be found at a pokey hotel about 10 minutes' drive out of town.

Clad in designer sunglasses and paramilitary top and trousers, this bald-headed warlord looks like he's strolled off the set of a Mad Max movie.

In real life he stands accused of murdering scores of innocent civilians during fighting in the Somaliland capital, Hargaisa.

Self-defence

Perhaps reading my thoughts, the general began to smile almost warmly and spent the next 15 minutes insisting that he's only ever killed in self-defence - and that was a long time ago.

General Morgan
General Morgan: "I'm more of a peacelord"

"In fact", he went on, "I'm now more of a peacelord than a warlord."

Given this reassurance it seemed safe to ask him how he felt about being nicknamed "The Butcher of Hargaisa".

My translator stared back at me as if I'd lost my sanity. I repeated the question and finally, after a lot of nervous fidgeting and chewing of biros, he translated.

Looking surprised, if not a little hurt, the general's face made clear that he wasn't too happy about his alias.

Before he could respond any further, a tray full of coffees arrived.

During the rush for cups, he suddenly became agitated and started shouting. Two of his aides shouted back. Through the jumble of foreign sounds two words kept emerging, at regular intervals.

Each time, they were followed by bangs on the table and more heated exchanges.

Universal language

I began to wonder whether it was time to beat a hasty retreat after perhaps going a question too far. Then, slowly two words emerged through his thick Somali accent: "Michael Owen, Michael Owen."

With the assistance of my translator, it became clear that this group of lawless warriors were not debating claims of genocide, or what to do with BBC men bearing troublesome questions.

They were locked in debate over who was the star of the recent World Cup. General Morgan adores Michael Owen.

The Butcher of Hargaisa is an England fan.


Politics

Terrorist haven?

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27 Oct 02 | Africa
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