Somalia: War crimes and the war on terror

Tensions are high in Somalia after the deputy PM switches sides and accuses supporting Ethiopian troops of 'genocide' against Somalis in a complex.

Commentary by Abdurrahman Warsameh (16/04/07) for ISN Security Watch

The deputy prime minister of Somalia's transitional government, Hussein Mohamed Farah Aideed, has accused Ethiopian troops of committing "genocide" against the Somali people in the capital, Mogadishu, taking already high tensions to a new level.

Such an accusation coming from a high-ranking Somali official, such as Aideed - the son of another, late and powerful politician - goes beyond the typical opposition propaganda and could create pressure for a formal international investigation into the recent death and destruction in Mogadishu.

Ethiopia has understandably dismissed Aideed's allegation as an absolute fabrication. In a recent statement, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tekede Alemu said such accusations were "expected from someone with no interest in peace and stability in Somalia."

Ethiopian officials are still considering an interview request by ISN Security Watch in response our recent coverage of the conflict in Somalia.

Alemu said Ethiopian troops and Somali forces had been "sitting ducks" for four months of mortars attack - attacks to which they did not respond with force, and it was only when extremists began shooting down aircraft serving African Union troops that a forceful response was made.

Aideed is a member of the dominant Hawiye clan, which inhabits southern Somalia, and has vowed to fight attempts by the transitional government and Ethiopian troops to secure control of the country. The government accuses the clan of harboring Islamists, who earlier last year had taken control of much of the country before being pushed back by Somali forces with the support of Ethiopian troops. The clan denies it is working with the Islamists. The Hawiye elders accuse the government forces of being exclusively from the president's clan, the Darood, and are trying to disarm them. Before this, Somalia was in a state of anarchy without a government for 16 years.

Earlier on, Aideed was one of the staunchest supporters of Ethiopian involvement in Somalia and even called for the unification of the two countries when Ethiopian troops first arrived in Mogadishu last December. But now he is accusing Ethiopian troops of "war crimes" and calling on them to leave.

"Ethiopian troops must leave Somali territory to let the Somalis decide their own fate," Aideed said in a brief interview broadcast on Eritrean state-run EriTV on 8 April.

Aideed, who is currently in Eritrea - Ethiopia's nemesis and the center of the opposition to Ethiopia's presence in Somalia - expressed fears that his country was turning into "another Iraq."

Four days of ferocious violence between anti-Ethiopian forces and Ethiopian soldiers in Mogadishu earlier this month led to "the worst violence in 15 years" and claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians and wounded thousands, while uprooting tens of thousands of others, according to human rights groups and local media reports.

Last week, the EU called for an investigation into the excesses of force used by Ethiopian troops, with vague talk of possible war crimes charges.

However, there has been little movement toward an international investigation, because of the complexity of the conflict and the fact that some view the Ethiopian engagement in Somali as a necessary part of Washington's expanded war on terror.

Ali Hussein, a lawyer in Mogadishu, told ISN Security Watch that the campaign against international terror often clouded excesses by military personnel the world over and it would be difficult to charge anyone for what has happened in Somalia in this age of "inhumanity and impunity." Human rights, he said, would likely have to take a back seat to the greater good of the war on terror.

According to some analysts in Mogadishu, the shaky ceasefire in place in the capital is untenable and there is little prospect of any of the belligerents withdrawing any time soon.

In the meantime, the civilians are bearing the brunt of the death and destruction in the urban warfare - and they place blame on all sides in the power struggle.

Asli Diiriye, the mother of six-month-old baby killed by shrapnel, told ISN Security Watch that she holds the Ethiopian government, which she views as an occupying force, and clan insurgents for her loss. Her views seems to by fairly representative of Somali residents here caught in the crossfire of a battle they never wanted.

She says she wants justice from the UN, but first and foremost she wants protection - which she believes is only possible through a type of international intervention not directly connected to the US-led war on terror.

As both sides in the conflict gird for an all-out war with no concrete efforts underway to resolve things peacefully, Somali civilians are preparing for the worst and placing little hope in international intervention on their side, or an end to the flagrant disregard for the suffering of the innocent in the Horn of Africa, where human rights are easy to overlook.

Abdurrahman Warsemeh is a correspondent for ISN Security Watch in Mogadishu.