WASHINGTON -- Somalian warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid proposed an immediate cease-fire in his urban guerrilla war with United Nations forces yesterday, and President Clinton quickly welcomed the truce offer.
In a statement broadcast on his guerrilla faction's radio station in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu, General Aidid said he wants "a total cease-fire" that would apply to his forces, U.N. forces and the growing U.S. military contingent.
The Somalian clan leader also said he accepts Mr. Clinton's proposals for settling the conflict and is ready to resume peace talks with other Somalian factions, according to news agencies that monitored the broadcast.
General Aidid's offer came just hours after U.S. envoy Robert B. Oakley arrived in Ethiopia to begin talks with African leaders on setting up peace negotiations with Somalian clans.
Mr. Clinton said he was encouraged by General Aidid's move but rejected the idea that he is negotiating a settlement directly with the warlord.
"If he's offering [a cease-fire], that's fine. He ought to stop the violence, because that's a good thing. . . . I welcome it," the president told reporters during a visit to Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
"But it's not accurate to say that we have initiated it," he said. "We didn't extend an offer of a cease-fire, and there's been no direct communications" with General Aidid.
Nevertheless, General Aidid's sudden conciliatory move came only one day after administration officials signaled informally -- in conversations with diplomats and reporters -- that the United States would suspend efforts to capture the warlord and allow him to participate in peace talks if he would impose a cease-fire.
The Somalian general responded with several conciliatory signals of his own. He said he supports resumption of political reconciliation talks sponsored by the Organization of African Unity, and he offered to cooperate with an international inquiry into the June 5 ambush of Pakistani peacekeeping troops that prompted the United Nations to attack him.
General Aidid also offered condolences to the families of Somalian and U.N. troops who have been killed, and ended his brief speech with the words: "Peace. Justice. Progress."
U.S. officials said that they do not plan to negotiate any formal truce with General Aidid. "We're delighted if Aidid is willing to do this, but it would be a unilateral cease-fire," one official said. "We'll judge him on the basis of his actions."
The net effect, it appeared, would be to return Mogadishu to the situation it enjoyed before the June 5 incident touched off a street-level war between General Aidid's forces and the U.S. forces under U.N. command -- with both forces sharing the streets of south Mogadishu, but General Aidid in substantial control of the area.
One question that remained unclear was how the cease-fire would affect the fate of Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael J. Durant, the U.S. helicopter crewman held captive by General Aidid's militia.
Asked about the American, Mr. Clinton said: "We expect that he will be released. I can't give you any other specific comment now. . . . I am very hopeful that there will be no Americans in captivity any time soon."
A senior Defense Department official said that the administration is willing to seek "an exchange" of prisoners, apparently including Warrant Officer Durant and 24 Aidid followers held by the U.N. force.
Mr. Clinton and other administration officials took pains to emphasize that they will not negotiate directly with General Aidid -- whose gunmen dragged the bodies of downed U.S. helicopter crewmen through Mogadishu's streets last week -- but they also took pains to signal General Aidid that an indirect way to make peace is available.
"We want to support a political process in Somalia that would permit the termination of our involvement," Mr. Clinton said.
"I think that the peace process, which sort of got derailed over the last several months, is going to get back in gear," he added, saying he sees "a great likelihood of a successful political resolution to this."
But he said it was up to African leaders, not the United States, to take the leading role in negotiating a settlement.
As for General Aidid, he repeated, "There's been no direct negotiation."
In keeping with that approach, officials said Mr. Oakley, who was expected to arrive in Mogadishu today, would probably not meet with General Aidid during his stay in Somalia.
U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali also plans to go to Somalia, and Mr. Clinton praised his efforts, too -- although the effect of the U.S. move toward a compromise with General Aidid has been to undercut the U.N. chief, who had demanded the warlord's arrest.
Although Mr. Clinton has set March 31 as the date for withdrawing U.S. troops from the Somalia mission, he has ordered their number beefed up in the meantime.
Mr. Oakley, a retired career Foreign Service officer known for his independent streak, might engage in some creative diplomacy of his own, administration officials said.
Mr. Clinton has given Mr. Oakley the authority to bypass the United Nations and work directly with President Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea and other African leaders to try to reach a political settlement in Somalia.
Meanwhile, a Time-CNN poll released yesterday found 60 percent of those surveyed disapproved of having troops in Somalia, while 36 percent approved. That was a dramatic shift from a similar survey taken Sept. 23, when 46 percent approved and 43 percent disapproved.