Civilian casualties of fighting between government forces, backed by African Union peacekeepers, and Islamist insurgents are rising in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, with civil society sources accusing the peacekeeping mission of being responsible for the bulk of them.
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has rejected claims it is responsible for most civilian casualties, particularly those in the Bakara Market area. Bakara is the largest open-air market in Somalia and has seen heavy fighting in the past few years.
In a 1 December statement AMISOM said "no indirect fire" was targeted at Bakara Market on 30 November as alleged in the local media. The term "indirect fire" refers to the use of weapons when there is no direct line of sight to the target. It is commonly applied to the use of mortars and field artillery.
Col Michael Ondoga of the Ugandan contingent command, said in the statement: "Our rules of engagement permit appropriate use of force, including indirect fire, in the protection of our [own] forces or civilians. Bakara Market is a force-registered `No Fire Zone’ and no commander can authorize any indirect fire into this area."
During the 30 November incident, Ondoga said, mortars were fired "at identified military targets in the area of Boondhere [northern Mogadishu - about 2km from Bakara Market], where extremist forces were massing for an attack".
Ali Muse, the head of the Mogadishu-based Lifeline Africa Ambulance Service, told IRIN AMISOM targeted Bakara during the incident: "We picked [up] eight injured people and three dead from the clothes section of the market on 30 November."
Muse said most shelling of Bakara Market comes from areas under the control of AMISOM troops. "I have no doubt in my mind as to who is responsible for the attacks on Bakara," he said.
"Not a day passes without the market coming under attack and almost all of the shelling is done by AMISOM," said a civil society activist who requested anonymity.
The source said many parts of the city were shelled daily "and in some areas you can apportion blame and accuse all sides of responsibility, but there is no dispute as to who is targeting Bakara Market."
Muse said by the end of November, the ambulance service had recorded 6,024 injured and 2,318 dead in Mogadishu since January 2010. He said the number of casualties could be higher, due to the fact that many people are buried where they die, and many injured are looked after by relatives unable to get them to hospital.
In a statement on 23 November AMISOM regretted the killing of two civilians by its forces.
Force Commander Maj-Gen Nathan Mugisha said: “AMISOM would like to reassure the public that we are here to support and protect you. We have many soldiers here working night and day to make Mogadishu safer. This incident is sad and regrettable. We understand people may be angry, but it is an isolated incident."
Abdullahi Shirwa, a civil society activist, said AMISOM and Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) need to face the fact that they are responsible for much of the shelling in Mogadishu and if they are to defeat the insurgents, they need to win the population over.
|AMISOM are the only ones who have the heavy weaponry that can target at long distances|
"Perpetual denial is not going to convince anyone. AMISOM are the only ones who have the heavy weaponry that can target at long distances," he said.
Another source saw a glimmer of hope in AMISOM's acceptance of the 23 November incident. "Maybe this is the start of a new policy on their part, but they need to go further and allow an investigation into who is causing the heaviest casualties in the city… I know of no one who likes the insurgents, but the indiscriminate shelling from AMISOM is not going to win the government any support… I hope their statement is not a public relations stunt but a serious effort to mend fences with the local population."
The activist noted that Al-Shabab, the leading insurgent group, use civilian areas to launch attacks on AMISOM and government positions.
On 29 September, Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a statement to the UN Human Rights Council, said opposition fighters had unlawfully deployed in densely populated civilian neighbourhoods and at times used civilians as "shields" to fire mortars at TFG and AMISOM positions, "attacks conducted so indiscriminately that they frequently destroy civilian homes but rarely strike military targets".
HRW added: "Often AMISOM or TFG forces respond in kind, launching indiscriminate mortar strikes on the neighborhoods from which opposition fighters had fired and then fled, leaving only civilians to face the devastation that ensues."