By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Published: April 6, 2007
NAIROBI, Kenya, April 5 — European diplomats said Thursday that they were investigating whether Ethiopian and Somali government forces committed war crimes last week during heavy fighting in Somalia’s capital that killed more than 300 civilians.
Relatives buried a family member in Mogadishu on Thursday, days after fighting killed more than 300 civilians and prompted charges of war crimes against Ethiopian troops and forces of the interim government.
The fighting, some of the bloodiest in Somalia in the past 15 years, pitted Ethiopian and Somali forces against bands of insurgents. It reduced blocks of buildings in Mogadishu, the capital, to smoldering rubble. Many residents have complained to human rights groups, saying the government used excessive force and indiscriminately shelled their neighborhoods.
Eric van der Linden, the chief of the European Commission’s delegation to Kenya, said he had appointed a team to look into several war crime allegations stemming from the civilian casualties. “These are hefty accusations,” Mr. van der Linden said. “We are examining them very prudently.” . . . .
In an e-mail message to Mr. van der Linden marked urgent, a security adviser to the commission wrote that there were “strong grounds” to believe that Ethiopian and Somali troops had intentionally attacked civilian areas and that Ugandan peacekeepers, who arrived in the country last month, were complicit for standing by. The message was provided by someone who thought that the issue should become public; its authenticity was confirmed by commission officials.
Ethiopian, Somali and Ugandan officials denied that their soldiers had done anything wrong.
A war crimes case is about the last thing Somalia’s transitional government needs. Ever since it took control of Mogadishu in late December, the transitional government has struggled to pacify the city and win popular support.
Many Western diplomats have expressed hope that this transitional government, Somalia’s 14th, will end the seemingly interminable chaos that has enveloped the country since the central government collapsed in 1991.
But so far, the government has failed to deliver the same level of stability that an Islamist administration brought during its brief reign last year. It was overthrown by Ethiopian-led forces, with covert American help.
Mogadishu has become so dangerous — again — that many residents say they are now doubting whether the government will be able to hold a major reconciliation conference scheduled for mid-April. The Ethiopian military struck a truce with insurgents on Sunday, though, and the past three days have been quiet, giving beleaguered residents a chance to bury their dead.
The European Commission has no authority to prosecute war crimes and would have to refer any findings to the International Criminal Court. But commission officials said they were investigating the accusations because the commission has provided money and technical assistance to the transitional government and the peacekeeping mission there.
A Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic considerations predicted that even if there was compelling evidence of war crimes, the case would probably never get to court.
Another Western official, speaking anonymously for similar reasons, said, “At the end of the day, no one is going to want to further undermine the transitional government.”
Diplomats and analysts from Somali and international organizations predicted that the American government would resist the European effort because Ethiopia is a close American ally, valued as bulwark against Islamic militants in the Horn of Africa.
In the past week, human rights groups have been urging someone to look into the issue of civilian casualties. The Somali Diaspora Network, an American-based advocacy group, accused the transitional government and Ethiopian forces of “collective punishment” and genocide.
The Somali Disapora Network said Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the transitional president, warned in a recent radio interview that “any place from which a bullet is fired, we will bombard it, regardless of whoever is there.”
Several of the analysts said they believed that Ethiopian forces overreacted in the fighting last week. One analyst who works closely on Somali issues said Ethiopian soldiers might have panicked after they were surrounded by insurgents in Mogadishu’s main stadium and commanders responded by carpet-bombing the entire neighborhood.
Ethiopian officials denied that.
“Our forces have been praised for not attacking civilians and nothing in recent days has changed,” said Zemedkun Tekle, a spokesman for the Ethiopian government.
Abdirizak Adam Hassan, chief of staff for Somalia’s transitional president, did not deny that many civilians had been killed. “Unfortunately, this is what happens when you fight in a city,” he said.
But, he said, the government was simply trying to defend itself.
“For a good two months, these insurgents have been attacking our government compounds, planting land mines in the road, assassinating people,” he said. “Our job is to protect the people, not kill them.”
Friday, April 6, 2007
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN