US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

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A Somali soldier near the wreckage of car in Mogadishu, Somalia, Thursday March 7, 2019. (AP)
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A boy walks past the site of a car bomb attack near a security checkpoint in the Somali capital, not far from the presidential palace in Mogadishu on March 7, 2019. (AFP)
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Rescuers carry a man who was injured in an attack on a restaurant by Somali Islamist group al Shabaab in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia, October 1, 2016. (REUTERS)
Updated 20 March 2019

US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

  • The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians

WASHINGTON: There is credible evidence that US military airstrikes in Somalia have killed or wounded nearly two dozen civilians, an international human rights group said Tuesday, charging that the Pentagon is not adequately investigating potential casualties.
US Africa Command officials immediately disputed the allegations laid out in a report by Amnesty International, and insisted that the military has investigated 18 cases of possible civilian casualties since 2017 and found that none were credible.
The seemingly contradictory information underscores the complexities of military operations against the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab group in Somalia, involving airstrikes by several allied nations in hostile, remote locations that are difficult to access safely.
The report came the same day that a Somali intelligence official and two local residents said a US drone strike on Monday killed civilians.
The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians. The official was not authorized to talk with the media and did so on condition of anonymity.
Residents concurred with the official’s assessment.
Mohamed Siyad, an elder in Lanta Buro, a village near the farming town of Afgoye, Somalia, told The Associated Press that four civilians including employees of a telecom company were killed.
“They were known to us — they had nothing to do with Al-Shabab,” he said by phone.
Another resident, Abdiaziz Hajji, said that the drone destroyed the vehicle. “Bodies were burnt beyond recognition,” he said. “They were innocent civilians killed by Americans for no reason. They always get away with such horrible mistakes.”
In a rare move, US Africa Command on Tuesday mentioned those possible casualties in a press release about the strike and said officials will look into the incident. But, more broadly, US defense officials said casualty allegations in Somalia are questionable because Al-Shabab militants make false claims or force local citizens to do the same.
Amnesty International, however, said it analyzed satellite imagery and other data, and interviewed 65 witnesses and survivors of five specific airstrikes detailed in the report. The report concludes that there is “credible evidence” that the US was responsible for four of the airstrikes, and that it’s plausible the US conducted the fifth strike. It said 14 civilians were killed and eight injured in the strikes.
“Amnesty International’s research points to a failure by the US and Somali governments to adequately investigate allegations of civilian casualties resulting from US operations in Somalia,” the report said, adding that the US doesn’t have a good process for survivors or victims’ families to self-report losses.
US Africa Command said it looked at the five strikes and concluded there were no civilian casualties. In the fifth case the command said there were no US strikes in that area on that day.
The group’s report and Defense Department officials also agreed that the strikes usually take place in hostile areas controlled by Al-Shabab militants. And those conditions, the report said, “prevented Amnesty International organization from conducting on-site investigations and severely limited the organization’s ability to freely gather testimonial and physical evidence.”
US defense officials told reporters that American troops were on the ground at strike locations in a very limited number of cases. Even in those instances, they said, US troops ordered strikes to protect local Somali forces they were accompanying, and there was little opportunity to investigate possible civilian casualties at that moment.
Still, the rights group concluded that the US military’s insistence that there have been zero civilian deaths is wrong.
“The civilian death toll we’ve uncovered in just a handful of strikes suggests the shroud of secrecy surrounding the US role in Somalia’s war is actually a smoke screen for impunity,” said Brian Castner, a senior adviser at Amnesty International.
US officials countered that they have access to information not readily available to nonmilitary organizations, including observations from people on the ground at the site and post-strike intelligence gathering from various electronic systems. Those systems can include overhead surveillance and data collected through cyber operations and other intercepted communications and electronic signals.
The defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
They said the US rigorously assesses targets in advance to make sure no civilians will be hurt or killed.
The officials noted that Kenya and Ethiopia also conduct airstrikes in the region, but provided no details. There are 500 to 600 US troops in Somalia at any time.
The pace of US airstrikes in Somalia has escalated during the Trump administration, from 47 in all of 2018 to 28 already this year. So far more than 230 militants have been killed in 2019, compared to 338 killed in all of 2018.
In March 2017, President Donald Trump approved greater authorities for military operations against Al-Shabab, allowing increased strikes in support of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali forces.
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who heads Africa Command, told reporters in a recent interview that Al-Shabab controls about 25 percent of the country and the key effort is to help the government regain control of its land.
“The intention is to keep the pressure on that network,” he said.
He said there are three categories of strikes: ones to target senior Al-Shabab leaders, ones to take out training camps or involve Daesh militants in the north, and ones aimed at helping the government increase security and regain control of the country. He said the last group involves the most strikes.


India reimposes movement curbs on parts of Kashmir’s main city after clashes

Updated 18 min 39 sec ago

India reimposes movement curbs on parts of Kashmir’s main city after clashes

  • There were violent overnight clashes between residents and police in which dozens were injured
  • India has been fighting a revolt in which at least 50,000 people have been killed

SRINAGAR: Indian authorities reimposed restrictions on movement in major parts of Kashmir’s biggest city, Srinagar, on Sunday after violent overnight clashes between residents and police in which dozens were injured, two senior officials and eyewitnesses said.
In the past 24 hours, there has been a series of protests against New Delhi’s Aug. 5 revocation of the region’s autonomy. This followed an easing in curbs on movement on Saturday morning.
The state government has said that it has not imposed a curfew over the past two weeks, but on Sunday people were being turned back at multiple roadblocks set up in the city in the past few hours. Security forces at some roadblocks have told residents there is a curfew.
Two senior government officials told Reuters that at least two dozen people were admitted to hospitals with pellet injuries after violent clashes broke out in the old city on Saturday night.
Representatives in the Jammu and Kashmir government in Srinagar and the federal government in New Delhi did not immediately return calls asking about the latest clampdown or seeking an assessment of the number of injuries and clashes.
One of the official sources said that people pelted security forces with stones in around two dozen places across Srinagar. He said that the intensity of the stone pelting protests has increased over past few days.
The heavy overnight clashes took place mostly in Rainawari, Nowhetta and Gojwara areas of the old city where Indian troops fired tear smoke, chilly grenades and pellets to disperse protesters, eyewitnesses and officials said.
Chilly grenades contain very spicy chili pepper, and produce a major eye and skin irritant, as well as a pungent smell, when they are unleashed.
The officials, who declined to be identified because they aren’t supposed to talk to the media, said clashes also took place in other parts of the city including Soura, a hotbed of protests in the past two weeks.
A senior government official and hospital authorities at Srinagar’s main hospital said that at least 17 people came there with pellet injuries. They said 12 were discharged while five with grievous injuries were admitted.
The hospital officials and a police officer told Reuters that a 65-year-old man, Mohammad Ayub of Braripora, was admitted to the hospital after he had major breathing difficulties when tear gas and chilly grenades were fired in old city area on Saturday afternoon. He died in the hospital on Saturday night and has already been buried, they said.
Javed Ahmad, age 35 and from the wealthy Rajbagh area of Srinagar, was prevented from going to the old city early Sunday morning by paramilitary police at a barricade near the city center. “I had to visit my parents there. Troops had blocked the road with concertina wire. They asked me to go back as there was curfew in the area,” he said.
Telephone landlines were restored in parts of the city on Saturday after a 12-day blackout and the state government said most telephone exchanges in the region would start working by Sunday evening. Internet and cell phones remain blocked in Kashmir.
More than 500 political or community leaders and activists remained in detention, and some have been flown to prisons outside the state.
For 30 years in the part of Kashmir that it controls, India has been fighting a revolt in which at least 50,000 people have been killed. Critics say the decision to revoke autonomy will cause further alienation and fuel the armed resistance.
The change will allow non-residents to buy property in Jammu and Kashmir, and end the practice of reserving state government jobs for local residents.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has said the measure is necessary to integrate Kashmir fully into India and speed up its development.