Somalia Agrees to U.N. Probe On Abuses

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

NAIROBI, May 14 -- Somalia's transitional government will allow a top U.N. human rights official to visit the country to investigate widespread allegations of war crimes, disappearances, illegal detentions and other abuses, the United Nations' chief aid officer said Monday after a visit to Somalia's beleaguered capital, Mogadishu.

John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said the transitional government did not accept any of the accusations leveled against it but had agreed to allow an independent investigation.

Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf also promised to remove many of the barriers, such as inspections and checkpoints, that have slowed or stopped delivery of truckloads of food, water and other aid intended for the more than 350,000 Somalis who have fled months of fighting between the Ethiopian-backed government and urban insurgents.

"The situation is of enormous concern to us," Holmes told reporters at a briefing Monday. "Especially with the risk of disease and the rainy season coming soon."

U.N. officials say the exodus from Mogadishu is the largest displacement of people in the world so far this year, surpassing the numbers of people chased away by conflicts in Iraq and Sudan's Darfur region, among others.

Because of the unusual requirements that the Somali government has imposed on aid groups, and the general insecurity of the area, however, relief has reached only 35 to 40 percent of the displaced Somalis now living under trees, along roads and in often-inhospitable villages outside the capital.

Though fighting has subsided since Ethiopia declared victory over the insurgents last month, only small numbers of people have returned home. Holmes said many Somali leaders told him they felt "abandoned" by the United Nations and the world.

His weekend visit to Mogadishu, the first by such a high-ranking U.N. official in a decade, was cut short after a roadside bomb exploded Saturday near the compound where he was meeting with Somali officials. Holmes, who wore a bulletproof vest over a suit jacket and tie during much of his visit, said he did not believe the bomb was aimed at him but was intended to "send a broader political message" that the conflict was not over.

He had intended to spend another day touring the once-pretty seaside capital that bears fresh scars from weeks of heavy fighting. Instead, he left Saturday night after meeting with some of the thousands of Somalis still displaced by the fighting that consumed the capital during the 1990s. Some were living in the abandoned British Embassy.

"It's a fairly depressing prospect driving through those areas," said Holmes, who is British. "I don't think you can say, 'This is a recovering city.' "

Holmes also met with clan leaders, who have accused the transitional government and Ethiopia of indiscriminately using tanks and other heavy weapons against civilian neighborhoods, in violation of international law.

The latest round of fighting in Mogadishu was the worst in 15 years, as Ethiopia sought to crush an insurgency composed of disgruntled clan militias and fighters loyal to the Islamic movement that Ethiopian troops ousted in January, with key logistical support from the United States.

In their meeting with Holmes, clan leaders also complained of widespread disappearances of people in Mogadishu suspected of supporting the Islamic movement, which had two leaders whom the United States and Ethiopia accuse of terrorist ties, as well as others who were viewed as moderates. The movement became popular during its six months in power for bringing a degree of peace and stability to the capital that Somalis had not experienced in decades.

At the moment, Holmes said, the key to improving the humanitarian situation in Somalia is to resolve the political crisis facing the feeble transitional government. Yusuf, the president, has been criticized for failing to include in his government moderate Islamic leaders now living in exile in Eritrea and Yemen, and for ignoring concerns of the city's powerful Hawiye clan.

"These problems are not primarily humanitarian," Holmes said. "They are political crises that become humanitarian."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company