Global Policy Forum

US Air Strikes in Somalia Condemned for Killing Innocent Civilians


By Aaron Glantz

January 21, 2007

According to the human rights organization Oxfam, U.S. and Ethiopian air strikes in Somalia last week killed 70 nomadic herdsmen who had no connection to any international terrorist group, including al-Qaeda, which the Pentagon said was the target of its attacks. "There were no combatants amongst them," Oxfam's Wyger Wentholt said from neighboring Kenya. "We suppose that it was a mistake and that they were wrongfully targeted," he said. "It could possibly be related to a bonfire that the herdsmen had lit at night, but that's something they normally do to keep animals and mosquitoes away from their herd." Oxfam received its information from local Somali organizations that have been providing communities in the country's Afmadow district with emergency medical supplies, essential household items, and water chlorination services, as well as distributing food in areas where food is not locally available. Wenthold said essential water sources were also damaged in the bombing. The United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, also reported that an estimated 100 people were wounded by U.S. AC-130 gun-ships firing on the Somalia-Kenya border area of Ras Kamboni.

The human rights organization Amnesty International also protested the air strikes, noting that international humanitarian law prohibits direct attacks on civilians as well as attacks that do not distinguish between military targets and civilians, and those that, although aimed at a military target, have a disproportionate impact on civilians or civilian objects. "We are concerned that civilians may have been killed as a result of a failure to comply with international humanitarian law," Amnesty's Claudio Cordones said in a statement. "What we want to know from the U.S. government is whether their forces took the necessary precautions to distinguish between civilians and combatants when they chose the means and methods of their attack." "Air power is notoriously indiscriminate," added Sarah Holewinksi of the Campaign for Innocent Victims of Conflict, or CIVIC. "The U.S. military and their Ethiopian and Somali counterparts should take all precautions to distinguish between civilians and combatants." Holewinski's group, which successfully convinced Washington policy-makers to mandate compensation for innocent civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, urged military planners in Somalia "to adequately assess the risk to civilians before launching air attacks and to evaluate their success following the attack." Such an assessment, CIVC said, would include keeping a full count of civilians harmed. Currently, the U.S. does not keep an official count of civilian casualties in Somalia or compensate innocent victims of its air strikes there.

The U.S. air strikes came after a ground invasion of 30,000 Ethiopian soldiers that ousted the Union of Islamic Courts from power and restored a UN-backed government in Mogadishu. That government is now working with neo-conservative policy analysts in Washington to press for ongoing support from the U.S. government. At a forum at the American Enterprise Institute Thursday, Dahir Mirreh Jibreel, a representative of the new Somali government, asked Washington to establish an embassy in Mogadishu, to encourage private U.S. investment in Somalia, and to press for congressional approval of Somalia stabilization and reconstruction legislation. Shortly after the transitional government overthrew the Union of Islamic Courts, the Bush administration made an initial down payment of $40 million in revitalization assistance for Somalia. About $16 million was earmarked for humanitarian assistance, $14 million put toward a multinational peacekeeping force whose deployment is still pending, and $10 million was allocated for development aid. "The situation is not yet calming down," cautioned Oxfam's Wentholt. "There are indications that conflict will persist and I think that depends a lot on what comes out of the political developments."

Since late December, Oxfam estimates violence in Somalia has forced an estimated 70,000 people from their homes, and has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Last year, Somalia was hit first by severe drought and then the worst flooding in 50 years, leaving some 400,000 people homeless.

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