An offensive by pro-Somali government troops and Ethiopian forces against Al-Shabab militants in the western Somali town of Bulo Hawo has forced thousands of people to flee their homes there and in the nearby Kenyan town of Mandera, say witnesses and officials.
One resident of Bulo Hawo, normally home to some 60,000 people, and also close to the Ethiopian border, said much of the now nearly deserted town had been destroyed “after days of shelling”. The offensive began on 23 February and fighting subsided on 28 February.
"Many businesses and private homes are in ruins. We are running out of food. There are no shops or other businesses open," he added, asking not to be identified.
Thousands of Bulo Hawo residents fled across the Kenyan border when fighting broke out but it has now been closed.
On 25 February, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) expressed “alarm” at the offensive, which is also taking place in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and Beletweyne in the Hiiraan region.
“We have received reports of many [civilian injuries],” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told a news briefing in Geneva, saying “coordinated pushes” in Bula Hawo and Beletweyne were being carried out by Ethiopian forces and Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa militia aligned to the Transitional Federal Government.
“Other civilians, including women, children and the elderly, remain trapped and unable to reach safety,” she said. “UNHCR fears that displaced Somalis could be squeezed on three fronts, unable to escape and seek refuge in either Ethiopia, Kenya or in Somalia's northern Puntland region. We again urge all armed groups and forces in Somalia to avoid targeting civilian areas and to ensure that civilians are not being placed in harm's way.”
Osob Hashi, 60, who fled Bulo Hawo to Mandera with her grandchildren before the border's closure, said: "We have nothing. We cannot even find shelter or food."
On 28 February, the district commissioner for Mandera East, Benson Leparmorijo, told IRIN Mandera was calm but that on 27 February, "missiles" launched from Ethiopia towards Bulo Hawo could be heard in the town.
"Some of the families who fled their homes have returned while others have not," Leparmorijo said. "At the moment, we are in the process of identifying the displaced and we have directed local chiefs to help because many of those who fled are staying with relatives and friends."
Leparmorijo said about 5,500 Kenyans had fled their homes. The government was soon expected to deliver food supplies, he added. The Kenya Red Cross Society, whose Mandera office was struck by stray bullets, has dispatched non-food items to 6,000 people in Mandera.
The district commissioner said at least 700 Somali families (about 4,200 people) from Bulo Hawo had sought refuge at the sports stadium in Mandera town.
An aid worker in Mandera, who requested anonymity, said a number of relief agencies suspended operations and moved out of town when the offensive began.
Several business premises, schools, public offices and banks in Mandera were closed, according to Mohamud Dualle, an official of the NGO, Mandera Rural Aid for Community Assistance and Development.
"About half of Mandera town's population has been displaced... it's a disaster," Dualle told IRIN.
A Mandera resident, Abdikadir Somaw, said: "I left Isiolo town [about 600km to the southwest] to escape tribal clashes five years ago. I am now back again as a result of fighting in Mandera, this is a curse! When will my children have a chance to learn in peace?"