Monday, April 02, 2007

Thousands Flee Somalia Capital Amid Escalating Violence

Thousands flee Somalia fighting

Tens of thousands of people have fled the Somali capital, Mogadishu, after days of intense violence said to be the worst in 15 years, the UN has said.

Many used a lull in the fighting to flee the city on Monday, after four days of Ethiopian troop attacks on Islamist insurgents and local militias.

However, hundreds of extra Ethiopian troops have also arrived in Mogadishu.

Hospitals have reported scores of people killed, while residents have spoken of indiscriminate shelling.

The UN Refugee Agency said some 56,000 people fled Mogadishu in March, with most (47,000) leaving the city since 21 March.

A total of 96,000 people left their homes during February and March, the agency said.

Many set off on long and dangerous journeys through areas controlled by rival clans rather than stay in the Mogadishu.

Fighters hostile to the interim government have been setting up roadblocks in the capital.

Anger at Ethiopia

Mogadishu residents emailed the BBC to express their anger at Ethiopia's operations in the city and their sadness at the latest fighting.

"It is really a horrible place to be, you can hear the sounds of heavy gunshots and wounded people are in a state of helplessness," Maslax Osman said.

"Thousands are fleeing carrying their belongings. Some have no money so they are in the streets crying for urgent help from other Somalis."

African Union (AU) peacekeepers have so far been unable to prevent the fighting. A Ugandan soldier died and five others were wounded on Saturday - the first AU casualty since they began deploying.

AU troops are supposed to be replacing Ethiopian soldiers, who stepped in at the end of 2006 to support a Somali government campaign to oust Islamists controlling the capital.

Last week Ethiopia said two-thirds of its troops had withdrawn from Somalia, and the rest would leave in consultation with the African Union.

But reports said that hundreds of Ethiopian reinforcements drove into Mogadishu on Sunday.

Ethiopian tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships have fought against rebels and clan militiamen armed with machine guns, missiles and rocket-propelled grenades.

'Dire situation'

The Red Cross has said the fighting is the worst seen in Mogadishu for 15 years.

William Spindler, of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), said on Monday that residents of Mogadishu were now faced with four-hour queues to leave the city.

Many have moved to the Lower Shabelle region around Mogadishu, he added, but at least 3,000 arrived in the Somaliland region, some 700km (435 miles) to the north.

Poor security is also hampering efforts to get help to the refugees.

"Our Somali staff in Mogadishu are trying to make their way to areas where people have fled. But the problem is that the security situation is making it difficult for humanitarian organisations to reach displaced people."

"They have little or no access to water, food, medicines or sanitation."

Despite the fighting, Somalia's interim government says it still plans to go ahead with a reconciliation meeting of elders, politicians and former warlords in two weeks' time.

The government has not been able to impose control over the country, which has been anarchic and rudderless since 1991, when ruler Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2007/04/02 09:46:27 GMT

Mogadishu residents flee before military offensive

Last Updated: Monday, April 2, 2007
8:37 AM ET
CBC News

On the urging of the government, Somalis have fled parts of their capital city, leaving the streets of Mogadishu empty on Monday in advance of a new military offensive from government-backed Ethiopian forces against Islamic insurgents.

"We call on the civilians living in terrorist-held areas in Mogadishu to abandon their houses because it is possible that government troops may target these areas any time," deputy defence minister Salad Ali Jelle said.

Fighting has been so severe and widespread in Mogadishu in recent days that bodies were not being picked up or even tallied.

The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that within the past 10 days, 47,000 people have fled from the city of two million. Western diplomatic sources have told the Associated Press that about 4,000 Ethiopian troops are currently in Mogadishu, but Jelle has denied reports that reinforcements were pouring into the city.

While there was a glimmer of hope on Sunday when Ahmed Diriye, spokesman for the Hawiye militant clan, claimed to have brokered a truce with the Ethiopian military, Jelle said the government has not recognized any such ceasefire. Reports of a deal were "null and void," he said.

Indeed, mortars exploded in Mogadishu hours after the Islamists announced an end to fighting.

Still, there was calm on Monday, with some businesses reopening and the public transport system beginning to operate even in the deserted streets.

Most intense fighting in 15 years

Last week, the interim government backed by Ethiopian troops launched a military offensive against the insurgents, who are linked to the Council of Islamic Courts. The fierce offensive sparked some of the most intense fighting the capital has seen in 15 years, claiming the lives of dozens of soldiers since Thursday.

Untold numbers of civilians have been killed and hundreds have been wounded.

The Council of Islamic Courts has long rejected any secular Somali government and has sworn to fight until the country becomes an Islamic emirate. The U.S. has accused the militants of having ties to al-Qaeda and sent special forces to help as the Ethiopian soldiers drove the Islamic courts from power in December.

Uganda, which has about 1,400 troops in the country as the vanguard of a larger African Union peacekeeping force, said Sunday it had lost its first soldier — a man who was hit by a mortar on Saturday. So far, Uganda is the only country to contribute to the peacekeeping force.

No comments: