The government of Somalia is putting a high price tag -- much higher than the Carter administration wants to pay -- on allowing U.S. military access to ports and airfields in that strategically located country on the Indian Ocean.
Somalia is one of three countries in the region -- the others are Kenya and Oman -- where the administration is trying to gain footholds that would make it easier to sustain American naval and air power near the volatile and oil-rich Persian Gulf.
The port and airfield facilities in Somalia, built by the Soviets before the Somali government kicked them out late 1977, are the most impressive in that chain of outposts.
U.S. officials say, however, that the somalis are asking five times the amount of military and economic assistance currently being offered by the administration as part of a package deal.
Furthermore, the Somalis want the United States to supply modern air defense weapons such as the Chaparral antiaircraft missile and the mobile Vulcan antiaircraft gun as part of the aid agreement, items that could add to concern among other African nations already nervous over the actions of the controversial Somali President Mohammed Siad Barre.
The administration search for places where it could arrange some limited military access began following the seizure last November of the U.S. Embassy in Iran, and took on added urgency after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan late in December.
All three countries have agreed in principle to allow the expanded U.S. access to air and sea facilities in return for some U.S. help. Negotiations with Oman and Kenya to arrange the details are said to be going reasonably well.
But the negotiations with Somalia, officials say, could take several months more, pushing a final agreement, if one is reached, into the fall rather than this spring as originally planned.
One State Department official, who says he is not as pessimistic about the situation as some others, says the Somalis still make clear they want the United States to come into the region and that they have not put their aid requirements forward on the basis that they must be met or else no deal.
Rather, he believes, the Somalis feel the United States can do anything it wants to do. He also thinks they are influenced by the memory of the vast amounts of aid that the Soviets poured in there very quickly before 1977.
The administration has not yet made public the overall cost of the quest for these new bases. Informed sources say, however, that the package of aid for all three countries totals about $90 million or $100 million. Somalia, sources say, would get about 35 to 40 percent of that under the current plan. The Somalis' request for aid at five times that level means they are seeking on the order of $175 million.
Aside from aid, the administration is planning on spending an estimated $250 million to repair and modernize facilities in the three countries, sources says.
A greatly expanded aid request for Somalia would undoubtedly have trouble on Capitol Hill. Though Barre threw out the Soviets and has developed closer ties to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, there has always been concern among critics here and abroad that the mercurial president could somehow drag the United States into an African war or make it appear that Washington was supporting a government unpopular elsewhere in Africa.
Somalia continues to give military support to insurgents fighting in the disputed Ogaden desert against the Soviet-backed regime in neighboring Ethiopia.
Twice before in recent years, the United States has edged toward a military relationship with Somalia, including supplying arms, but pulled back when regular Somali troops entered the fighting.
As congressional sources understood it, the current military aid package initially included so-called nonlethal items such as trucks, radars and radios. i
The sensitivity of the weapons issue can be seen from a little-publicized communique last month issued after a meeting between the foreign ministers of Kenya and Ethiopia.
"The two sides," the communique said, "called on all countries to refrain from arming the Mogadishu [Somali] regime, which is continuing with its expansonist and aggressive aims in the Horn of Africa."
The Ethiopian reaction was expected. But to some observers, the Kenyan agreement to such language suggests Kenya is more afraid of the Somalis than it is of the Soviets and Cubans in Ethiopia.