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Rising civilian toll ignites anger at African force as it battles Somali militants

An African Union peacekeeping force, funded by hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States and its allies, has killed, wounded and displaced hundreds of Somali civilians in a stepped-up campaign against Islamic militants, according to medical officials, human rights activists and victims.

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Sunday, July 18, 2010

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA -- An African Union peacekeeping force, funded by hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States and its allies, has killed, wounded and displaced hundreds of Somali civilians in a stepped-up campaign against Islamist militants, according to medical officials, human rights activists and victims.

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Led by Ugandan and Burundian troops, the force has intensified shelling in recent weeks as Somalia's al-Shabab militia, which is linked to al-Qaeda, has pushed closer toward the fragile government's seat of power. The shells are landing in heavily populated areas, in some cases even neighborhoods controlled by the government. Al-Shabab leaders say the peacekeepers and the shelling are the key reasons it bombed two venues in Uganda's capital last Sunday, killing 76 people watching broadcasts of the World Cup final.

In this war-torn capital, Fatima Umar and Muse Haji were among the latest victims. An artillery shell crashed into their building, killing Umar on the top floor and Haji on the bottom floor. Umar, 15, was a cleaner who earned $7 a month to support her parents. Haji, 38, was a shopkeeper who was relaxing on his stoop on his day off.

Witnesses said the shell was fired from the direction of the airport, which the peacekeepers control. "It was the Ugandans," declared Omar Sharif, a clan elder, as he stood in the rubble next to a shattered bed splattered with Umar's blood. Sunlight glared through a huge hole in the wall.

"When one kilogram of mortars are fired by al-Shabab, AMISOM replies with 100 kilograms of artillery," said Abdulqadir Haji, director of a volunteer ambulance service, using the acronym for the African Union force. "It is America and the West who support them. America and the West are the silent killers in Somalia's war."

The mounting civilian toll is breeding popular resentment that threatens to undermine Somalia's U.S.-backed government, complicating Washington's efforts to combat Islamist militancy in an area where al-Qaeda's affiliates are increasingly posing a threat to U.S. interests and regional stability as they export jihad across borders.

The bombings in Uganda, which also killed one American, were the first major al-Shabab strikes outside Somalia. They show that the African Union shelling campaign has done little to weaken the militia, which is seeking to overthrow the government and establish a Taliban-like Islamist emirate.

Al-Shabab's top leader, Mukhtar Abdurahman Abu Zubeyr, vowed more attacks against Uganda if its troops do not leave Somalia. In an audiotape message, he said the peacekeepers have "committed a nasty massacre," including "constant shelling at poor civilian populations" that he said was worse than when American troops were here in 1993 during an ill-fated U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Human shields alleged

The peacekeepers deny using disproportionate force and say they exercise maximum restraint, even when they are in imminent danger of attack. They say al-Shabab uses civilians as human shields and in some cases has fired mortar shells at civilians and blamed the peacekeepers.

"AMISOM has never shelled indiscriminately at civilians," said Gaffel Nkolokosa, a spokesman for the force. "Peacekeepers have always avoided civilian shellings and observe international humanitarian laws."

Last week, Uganda announced plans to send 2,000 more troops to Somalia to support the 5,000 already there.

Somali government officials welcome the peacekeeping mission but expressed concern about the civilian deaths.


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