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

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Sunday, July 18, 2010; A10

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.

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.

"We are in a dilemma," said Abdirahman Omar Osman, Somalia's minister of information. "For us, al-Shabab is trying to do everything it can to get rid of the government. But when we defend ourselves from al-Shabab, civilians get caught in the middle. We do not want one civilian to die."

Mark Zimmer, a public affairs officer for Somalia at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, said Washington is "proactive" in trying to prevent the peacekeepers from "inadvertently targeting civilians and increasing their sensitivity to avoiding civilian casualties." But he noted that "al-Shabab has increased attacks of late, forcing AMISOM to respond."

The United States said Thursday that it would increase its support of the mission.

Most Somalis loathe al-Shabab for its brutality and repressive dictates. But they say the peacekeeping force should be held responsible for its actions.

"The people are saying, 'What is the difference between AMISOM and al-Shabab?' " said Hassan Elmi, a peace activist who lives near the airport and says he hears as many as 200 to 300 shells being fired each day. "You are killing me. And they are also killing me."

'I want my father'

At Mogadishu's Madina Hospital, the Gailani brothers lay next to each other on beds. Tubes ran from 12-year-old Sharif's arms; a thick bandage covered his stomach. Motionless, he stared blankly at the ceiling. Ten-year-old Mohamed's right arm and leg were bandaged. In a soft, crackling voice, he struggled to explain what happened.

"I was watching my brother play," he began. "I heard a crash. Then I felt pain and fell down."

Mohamed stopped talking, as if he had returned to that moment and then began to sob uncontrollably. "I want my father," he cried out.

Moments later, Gailani Mohammed Abdallah arrived and comforted his son. The shell, he said, had come from the direction of the airport.

The hallway outside overflowed with patients, most with injuries from the shelling. Mogadishu's two main hospitals, Madina and Keysane, have treated more than 3,000 civilians with war-related wounds this year, including 1,250 women and children, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. At this rate, the number of wounded civilians is on track to exceed last year's total of 5,087.

The African Union peacekeepers arrived in Mogadishu in 2007, funded in part by $185 million from the United States over the past 19 months. They filled a void left when the United Nations decided not to send its own peacekeepers after the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, who had invaded Somalia in late 2006 to tamp down an Islamist uprising. That invasion, covertly backed by the United States, led to the rise al-Shabab, which fought back the Ethiopians.

Today, al-Shabab controls large swaths of southern and central Somalia. The government -- the 14th since Somalia descended into chaos after dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991 -- controls a sliver of the capital.

Over four days in the capital last week, this reporter heard as many as 20 shells being fired from one African Union peacekeeping position every day.

"Whenever the enemy are gathering on the front lines, they shell the area," said Mohammed Jimal, a government military commander. "It helps the government.

"There are civilian casualties. No one can deny this," he added, indifferently.

As he spoke, the sharp whistle of a burst of artillery echoed across the capital.

The shell that killed Umar and Haji also wounded 4-year-old Abdullah Gailani, who was recovering at the hospital. A bandage covered the shrapnel that had pierced his back. Next door, 9-year-old Hassan Muneye sat in a chair. He was playing soccer when he heard a whistle and then a crash, and then felt a sharp pain in his leg.

"We will never play outside again," Muneye said. "Perhaps we'll hear another whistle."

Neighborhood leaders have demanded compensation for their losses. So far, neither the African Union nor the government has sent an official to visit their neighborhood.

"Our lives have no value," said Ali Amin Hadji, a clan elder. "We have been forgotten."

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