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Somalia: Shell-Shocked

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Aug 22, 2007 (070822)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Based on dozens of eyewitness accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch in a six-week research mission to Kenya and Somalia in April and May 2007, plus subsequent interviews and research in June and July, this [Human Rights Watch] report documents the illegal means and methods of warfare used by all of the warring parties and the resulting catastrophic toll on civilians in Mogadishu.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin includes a press release and summary of the new report from Human Right Watch, Shell-Shocked: Civilians under Siege in Mogadishu. Released just before the renewal of the United Nations mandate for an African Union force in Somalia, the report outlines the massive destruction in Mogadishu resulting from the Ethiopian invasion and the subsequent urban warfare.

According to United Nations estimates, some 400,000 people have fled the city in the past four months, and Doctors without Borders reports that the number of doctors in the city's hospitals as fallen from 53 to 13.

Nevertheless, the United Nations took no new action, despite the ineffectiveness of the African Union force consisting of 1,700 Ugandan troops. The force is far short of its planned 8,000 strength and the terms of its mandate allying it with the unpopular Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government have been sharply questioned by critics.

For earlier AfricaFocus Bulletins on Somalia, links to news, Human Rights Watch reports, and other background information, visit

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Shell-Shocked: Civilians Under Siege in Mogadishu

Human Rights Watch

August 13, 2007

For a full copy of the report, please visit:

Ethiopian, Somali and insurgent forces are all responsible for rampant violations of the laws of war in Mogadishu, causing massive suffering for the civilian population, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch urged the UN Security Council during its current deliberations on Somalia to include a strong civilian protection mandate in any peacekeeping mission. The 113-page report, "Shell-Shocked: Civilians Under Siege in Mogadishu," is the first independent, on-the-ground investigation of the fighting that wracked Mogadishu in March and April 2007, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the displacement of 400,000 people. "The warring parties have all shown criminal disregard for the well-being of the civilian population of Mogadishu," said Ken Roth, executive director for Human Rights Watch. "The UN Security Council's indifference to this crisis has only added to the tragedy."

Human Rights Watch documented numerous war crimes among many other violations of the laws of war by all parties to the armed conflict in Mogadishu.

Violations by the insurgency, a loose coalition of Somali armed groups, include:

  • the indiscriminate firing of mortar rounds into civilian areas;
  • deployment of forces in densely populated neighborhoods;
  • targeted killings of civilian officials of the transitional Somali government; and
  • summary executions and mutilation of the bodies of captured combatants.

Ethiopian forces backing the Somali transitional government violated the laws of war by widely and indiscriminately bombarding highly populated areas of Mogadishu with rockets, mortars and artillery. Its troops on several occasions specifically targeted hospitals and looted them of desperately needed medical equipment. Human Rights Watch also documented cases of Ethiopian forces deliberately shooting and summarily executing civilians.

Somali transitional government forces played a secondary role to the Ethiopian military, but failed to provide effective warnings to civilians in combat zones, looted property, impeded relief efforts for displaced people, and mistreated dozens of people detained in mass arrests. "The insurgency placed civilians at grave risk by deploying among them," said Roth. "But that is no justification for Ethiopia's calculated shelling and rocketing of whole neighborhoods."

The launch of the report coincides with today's UN Security Council deliberations on Somalia. The Security Council is due to discuss the 1,500-member African Union mission in Somalia and proposals to turn the mission into a UN force. The armed conflict in Mogadishu has steadily escalated since the Ethiopian-backed Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) established itself in Mogadishu in January 2007. In December 2006, Ethiopian forces with US support ousted the coalition of Islamic Courts from Mogadishu and other areas of south-central Somalia in a lightning offensive.

Since January 2007, a coalition of insurgent groups, including the Islamic Courts' militant Al-Shabaab militia, has waged almost daily attacks on Ethiopian and TFG forces, including several suicide attacks, and killed TFG civilian officials. The insurgency repeatedly launched mortar attacks from densely populated neighborhoods of Mogadishu, jeopardizing civilian security, in violation of the laws of war. On March 29, Ethiopian forces launched the first of two major counterinsurgency offensives in the city. Ethiopian troops indiscriminately bombarded insurgent strongholds with barrages of "Katyusha" rockets, mortars, and artillery, making no apparent effort to distinguish between civilians and insurgent targets.

A second Ethiopian offensive from April 18 - 26 targeted and destroyed additional areas of the city and added several hundred more civilians to the total death toll. While the precise number of civilian casualties is not yet known, estimates range from 400 to more than 1,300 deaths resulting from both rounds of fighting. Ethiopia's intervention in Somalia is closely linked to regional security concerns, including a proxy war with Eritrea and the presence of two Ethiopian rebel movements in Somalia.

In January 2007, the United States launched several air strikes in southern Somalia, and again in June in Puntland, in the northeast. These attacks were the first US military interventions in the country since its forces departed in 1994. The US alleged that militants within the Islamic courts were sheltering individuals connected to international terrorism networks, including people wanted in connection with the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. "Since the major fighting ended in April, Ethiopian and Somali government forces have routinely violated the rights of civilians on the streets of Mogadishu," said Roth. "Effective counterterrorism can only be built on respect for basic rights and an end to impunity for serious crimes."

Human Rights Watch called on the UN Security Council and key international actors to use their leverage with Ethiopian and Somali government forces to end abuses and encourage respect for international law. Concerned countries should also request and support an increased UN human rights monitoring and reporting mission in Somalia.

I. Summary

The year 2007 brought little respite to hundreds of thousands of Somalis suffering from 16 years of unremitting violence. Instead, successive political and military upheavals generated a human rights and humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since the early 1990s.

Since January 2007, residents of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, have been gripped by a terrifying campaign of violence that has killed and injured hundreds of civilians, provoked the largest and most rapid displacement of a civilian population for many years, and shattered the lives, homes, and livelihoods of thousands of people. Although overlooked by much of the world, it is a conflict whose human cost is matched by its regional and international significance.

The conflict in Mogadishu in 2007 involves Ethiopian and Somali government forces against a coalition of insurgent groups. It is a conflict that has been marked by numerous violations of international humanitarian law that have been met with a shameful silence and inaction on the part of key foreign governments and international institutions.

Violations of the laws of war documented in this report include the deployment of insurgent forces in densely populated neighborhoods and the widespread, indiscriminate bombardment of these areas by Ethiopian forces. The deliberate nature of these bombardments, evidence of criminal intent, strongly suggests the commission of war crimes.

Underpinning the developments in Somalia is the striking rise to power and rapid collapse of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a movement based on a coalition of sharia courts, in Mogadishu in mid-2006. The Islamic Courts were credited with bringing unprecedented stability to a city plagued by lawlessness and extreme violence. Speculation about whether early indicators of extreme and repressive action by the ICU would evolve into more moderate policy was cut short by the events that followed.

The presence of some radical and militant Islamist elements within the ICU and their belligerent statements stoked fears within and outside the region. The ICU's dominance also threatened the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which had little international support and minimal popular legitimacy, particularly in Mogadishu. In December 2006 Somalia's historic rival Ethiopia intervened in Somalia in support of the TFG and with the backing of the United States government, and ousted the ICU in a matter of days. Although the campaign was conducted in the name of fighting international terrorism, Ethiopia's actions were rooted in its own regional and national security interests, namely a proxy war with Eritrea and concern over Ethiopian armed opposition movements supported by Eritrea and the ICU.

Following the establishment of Ethiopian and TFG troops in Mogadishu in January 2007, residents of Mogadishu witnessed a steady spiral of attacks by insurgent forces aimed at Ethiopian and TFG military forces and TFG officials. Increasingly, Ethiopian forces launched mortars, rockets, and artillery fire in response. A failed March 21 and 22 disarmament operation by the TFG resulted in the capture of TFG troops and - in scenes evocative of the deaths of US soldiers in 1993 - the mutilation of their bodies in Mogadishu's streets.

In late March Ethiopian forces launched their first offensive to capture Mogadishu's stadium and other locations, which met with resistance from a widening coalition of insurgent groups. Ethiopian forces used sustained rocket bombardment and shelling of entire neighborhoods as their main strategy to dislodge the mobile insurgency and then occupy strategic locations. Hundreds of civilians died trying to flee or while trapped in their homes as the rockets and shells landed. Tens of thousands of people fled the city.

Four days of intense bombardment and fighting was ended by a brief ceasefire negotiated by the Ethiopian military and Hawiye clan elders. The ceasefire faltered and then broke in late April, when Ethiopian forces launched their second major offensive to capture additional areas of north Mogadishu. Again, heavy shelling and rocket barrages were used against insurgents in densely populated civilian neighborhoods. Hundreds more people died or were wounded. On April 26 the TFG, which played a nominal role supporting the Ethiopian military campaign, declared victory. Within days, insurgent attacks resumed, increasingly based on targeting Ethiopian and TFG forces with
remote-controlled explosive devices.

Based on dozens of eyewitness accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch in a six-week research mission to Kenya and Somalia in April and May 2007, plus subsequent interviews and research in June and July, this report documents the illegal means and methods of warfare used by all of the warring parties and the resulting catastrophic toll on civilians in Mogadishu.

The insurgency routinely deployed their forces in densely populated civilian areas and often launched mortar rounds in "hit-and-run" tactics that placed civilians at unnecessary risk. The insurgency possibly used civilians to purposefully shield themselves from attack. They fired weapons, particularly mortars, in a manner that did not discriminate between civilians and military objectives, and they targeted TFG civilian officials for attack. In at least one instance, insurgent forces executed captured combatants in their custody, and subjected the bodies to degrading treatment.

Ethiopian forces failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid incidental loss of civilian life and property, such as by failing to verify that targets were military objectives. Ethiopian commanders and troops used both means of warfare (firing inherently indiscriminate "Katyusha" rockets in urban areas) and methods of warfare (using mortars and other indirect weapons without guidance in urban areas) that violated international humanitarian law. They routinely and repeatedly fired rockets, mortars, and artillery in a manner that did not discriminate between civilian and military objectives or that caused civilian loss that exceeded the expected military gain. The use of area bombardments in populated areas and the failure to cancel attacks once the harm to civilians became known is evidence of criminal intent necessary to demonstrate the commission of war crimes. The Ethiopian forces also appeared to conduct deliberate attacks on civilians, particularly attacks on hospitals. They committed pillaging and looting of civilian property, including of medical equipment from hospitals.

The Transitional Federal Government forces failed to provide effective warnings when alerting civilians of impending military operations, committed widespread pillaging and looting of civilian property, and interfered with the delivery of humanitarian assistance. TFG security forces committed mass arrests and have mistreated persons in custody.

Reaction to these serious international crimes has been muted to the point of silence. Despite the scale and gravity of the abuses in Mogadishu in 2007, there has been no serious condemnation by key governments or institutions. The human rights crisis that has permeated Somalia for years, now significantly amplified in the past six months, has yet to even reach the agenda of many international actors. Easing the suffering of Somali civilians and building a stable state cannot be accomplished in a human rights vacuum.

Key governments and international institutions such as the United States, the European Union and its members, the African Union, the Arab League, and the United Nations Security Council must recognize the urgent need for human rights protection and accountability in Somalia.

International donors and actors must take immediate action to condemn the appalling crimes that have been perpetrated and send a clear signal to all the warring parties that impunity for these crimes will not be tolerated. The United States and the European Union provide significant financial, technical, and other assistance to both Ethiopia and the Somali Transitional Federal Government and should use their leverage to press for respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.

Independent human rights monitoring and reporting must be increased and international donors should encourage, assist, and finance efforts to make those responsible for abuses accountable for Somalia's latest cycle of violence.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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