SOMALIA: UN humanitarian chief calls for protection of civilians

Friday, April 25, 2008
John Holmes, the UN's top humanitarian official, has called on all parties in the Somali conflict to protect civilians amid an increasing trend of indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force against the general population in contravention of international humanitarian law.

“Combatants appear to have little regard for the safety of civilians in Mogadishu, where residents have been traumatised by years of violence,” he said in a statement issued on 24 April.

Holmes was particularly concerned about the fighting in Mogadishu on 19 and 20 April, when more than 100 people were killed and 200 injured.

Heavy artillery and tanks were used in residential areas, reportedly one of the reasons for the high civilian casualties.

The Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator also "strongly condemned the brutal killing" of some 21 people in the al-Hidaya Mosque in Heliwaa district of north Mogadishu on 19 April. Up to 50 children aged between nine and 14 were also abducted.

"We don’t know where our children are and what condition they are in," Abdiqani Mohamed, a parent of a 14-year-old student taken from the mosque, allegedly by Ethiopian troops, told IRIN on 24 April. "We are very worried for their safety and wellbeing," he said.

He said the children had been in school at the mosque when soldiers entered and took the children. "They were not armed and posed no threat to anyone. I don’t know why anyone would want to do this. We are appealing to be told where our children are."

In a statement issued on 23 April, Amnesty International called on the Ethiopian military to release the children: “The safety and welfare of the children, some as young as nine years old, must be paramount for all parties.”

A spokesman for the Ethiopian government denied the involvement of Ethiopian troops in the killings, it added.

Amnesty called on the UN Security Council to "take steps to end impunity across Somalia by launching an International Commission of Inquiry, or similar mechanism, to investigate human rights violations committed during the armed conflict".

Talks threatened

The latest violence is threatening plans for reconciliation talks between the interim government and the opposition. Ahmed Abdullahi, a spokesman for the Asmara-based Alliance for Re-liberation of Somalia, better known as the Alliance, told IRIN it had suspended any talks with the government through the UN.

"We cannot hold talks while our people are being massacred and the world watches with total indifference," he said.

Alliance representatives met the UN special envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdalla, in neighbouring Djibouti, and made clear there were a number of obstacles to possible dialogue at this point.

According to the UN, some 750,000 of Mogadishu’s residents have already fled the city over the past year, and continue leaving at an average rate of 20,000 each month.

Holmes said the violence had hindered the delivery of assistance to those who remain in the city as well as those who sought safety outside.

The UN estimates that some 2.5 million people in Somalia are in need of humanitarian assistance or livelihood support, due to a combination of insecurity, drought and hyper-inflation.