Civilian Toll Cited In Somali Conflict

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

NAIROBI, Aug. 13 -- Ethiopian, Somali and insurgent forces rampantly violated the laws of war during heavy fighting in the Somali capital of Mogadishu earlier this year, resulting in a "catastrophic" toll on civilians, according to a report released Monday by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

The violations included deliberate, indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods and hospitals, and summary executions of civilians, according to the 113-page report.

Among its copious details is a transcript of a March radio interview with Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf, whose government was installed by Ethiopian military might in December and has been battling a growing insurgency in Mogadishu ever since.

The president was asked whether a neighborhood where insurgents were hiding would be bombarded, even if civilians were there.

"Yes we will bombard it!" Yusuf responded.

In a statement, the Ethiopian government called the Human Rights Watch report "unfounded" and "irrelevant to the promotion of human rights." There was no immediate response from the Somali government, which in the past has defended its campaign, or from insurgent groups.

The report accused Yusuf's foreign backers, including the United States, of "shameful silence" in the face of the violence.

The United States supported Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia to oust a relatively popular Islamic movement that had taken hold there last year. U.S. forces subsequently launched three airstrikes inside Somalia aimed at Islamic fighters alleged to have terrorist ties.

The rights group said there was not enough information on the U.S. strikes to determine whether they might have violated international humanitarian laws.

The State Department, which views Ethiopia as a key ally in fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa, has offered little public criticism of the Ethiopian government's intervention or the increasingly unpopular Somali government.

The Human Rights Watch report is the first independent, detailed accounting of the massive counterinsurgency offensive in March and April this year. The operations killed an estimated 1,000 civilians, sent about 400,000 Mogadishu residents fleeing and touched off weeks of chaotic fighting that Somalis said was the worst since the fall of their last central government in 1991.

According to the report, the insurgents -- a loose coalition of hard-core Islamic fighters, clan militias and nationalists -- violated international law by routinely deploying in densely populated civilian areas. They indiscriminately fired mortar shells into civilian areas, the report found, and in one case dragged the bodies of dead soldiers through Mogadishu's streets.

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