All sides guilty of violating international law in Somalia, says new report. Wave of attacks rock Iraq. Assault on Syrian port enters third day. US officials reject report on drone death figures. Gaddafi defiant as rebels claim control of West. All this and more in today’s briefing...
All sides guilty of violating international law in Somalia
All sides in the conflict that has wracked Somalia for two decades are guilty of serious breaches of international law, according to a new report published yesterday by Human Rights Watch. The New York-based human rights group claims that civilians bear the brunt of the conflict, and lack protection from any quarter.
Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, the leading Islamic militia al-Shabaab, the international community and security forces in neighbouring Kenya are all slammed for putting civilians at risk. However, the TFG and al-Shabaab come in for particular criticism. “All sides have used artillery in the capital Mogadishu... al-Shabaab has fired mortars indiscriminately from densely populated areas and the TFG and Amisom forces have often responded in kind with indiscriminate counterattacks,” HRW said in its report.
Violence across Somalia, but particularly in Mogadishu, has displaced 1.4 million Somalis within the country and forced hundreds of thousands into neighbouring Kenya, creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. As the Horn of Africa faces one of the worst droughts on record, ongoing conflict prevents aid from reaching those most in need.
Al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu a week ago after an offensive by government and Amisom forces. However, the situation in the capital remains tense. Although the group recently lifted its blanket ban on aid agencies operating in Somalia, an attempt to distribute food aid earlier this month sparked a shootout in which at least 10 people were killed as militias fought over the aid.
According to HRW, the TFG regularly carries out arbitrary arrests and detentions under the banner of fighting al-Shabaab, which is in turn accused of repressive brutality against the populations under its control. Meanwhile, the international community was condemned for its lack of action to prevent these abuses from occurring. Kenyan police were also accused of using rape and extortion against some of the millions who have fled across the border in recent years.
While Ben Rawlence, the report’s author, called on the international community to make support for Somalia’s TFG conditional on respect for human rights and improved security force accountability, the TFG rejected the report’s conclusions. Abdi Rashid Aseed, a TFG spokesman, said that “the government is committed to human rights. We are happy to listen but criticism has to be constructive.”
HRW repeated its call for a UN commission to investigate allegations of human rights violations, to lay the groundwork for government accountability.
Wave of attacks rock Iraq
A wave of bomb attacks across Iraq has left at least 59 people dead, breaking the relative calm that accompanied the start of Ramadan. The biggest attack hit the city of Kut, in south-eastern Iraq, where local security forces said two almost simultaneous attacks killed at least 37 people. 65 are also believed to have been injured in Kut.Further attacks were reported elsewhere in Iraq, with thirteen killed in Diyala province and nineteen killed in Najaf. Although the blasts appeared to be co-ordinated, no group has claimed responsibility for them yet.
US forces are due to pull out of Iraq by the end of 2011, although Iraqi leaders are in talks with the US over whether some forces should remain in 2012. Today’s attacks highlight the difficult position of US troops. While they clearly demonstrate ongoing insecurity, the blasts are sure to make the US administration wary of further prolonging its engagement with Iraq.
Assault on Syrian port enters third day
Syrian security forces today shelled residential Sunni neighbourhoods in Latakia, as the assault on this ancient port city entered its third day.
Latakia, like other cities in Syria, has seen waves of protests against incumbent president Bashar al-Assad over the last five months. Assad’s government has responded to intensifying protests across the country with a widening military attack on key protest towns. Hama, Deir ez-Zour and several other towns in Idlib province have all seen vicious assaults since the start of Ramadan, with significant loss of life.
Syria’s military appears to be following an increasingly-well established pattern in Latakia, with tanks and armoured vehicles encircling dissident areas and essential services cut off, before a wave of raids, arrests and bombardments.
The state news agency, however, denied that the port had been shelled from the sea, claiming that two police and four unidentified armed men were killed when “order preservation forces pursued armed men who were terrorising residents... and using machineguns and explosives from rooftops and from behind barricades.”
Unlike other cities that have witnessed military retribution for their protests, Latakia, which has seen 20 000 people rally daily to demand an end of Assad’s rule, has a large population of Alawites – the ethnic group that the Assad family belong to. The port is also strategically vital for the government, given its economic significance.
International condemnation of the government’s tactics is growing. The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, called on Syrian to end military operations against civilians swiftly and unconditionally, warning that this were Turkey’s “final words.” Turkey, formerly a key regional ally to Assad’s government, has grown increasingly frustrated with Assad’s intransigence.
US officials reject report on drone death figures
A report claiming that the number of civilians killed by American drone attacks in Pakistan is much higher than previously estimated has been slammed by US officials, who say the figures in the report are “way off the mark.”
The report claims that the number of reported deaths is far higher than previously believed, with 40% more recorded casualties than previously thought, with up to 2863 people reported dead in the last seven years. The US has reacted angrily to the report, published last week by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with one senior official saying “the numbers are wrong.”
A senior American official told AFP that only 600 people have been killed in the last year – all of them militants – in contrast to the report’s claims to have collated “credible news reports” of up to 775 civilian deaths. The US has also questioned one of the report’s sources, a Pakistani lawyer who is suing the CIA on behalf of those of who have lost loved ones to drone attacks.
American use of drones in Pakistan’s north-western provinces has long been a source of controversy. While they have been widely credited with disrupting al-Qaeda activities in Pakistan in some circles, drones have been slammed in others for their high civilian death toll.
While top US counter-terrorism official John Brennan’s claim that drone attacks resulted in not a single civilian casualty in the year up to June 2011 is unlikely to be true, strict controls on access to strike sites makes it difficult to be sure of the figures.
Gaddafi defiant as rebels claim control of West
Libyan rebel fighters have advanced to two strategically key towns, which, if held, would give them control of access to Tripoli from the West and South, say commanders.
Fighting has been reported in Zawiya, to the West of Tripoli, and Gharyan, to the South. If these towns fall to the rebels, this would give them control of land access to the Libyan capital. However, it is not clear how much territory the rebels now hold, or how long they can hold it for. Zawiya was held briefly by the rebels when the uprising against Gaddafi first began this year, but was quickly lost again, leaving the rebels with severe casualties. With its vital oil refinery and access to the coastal road towards Tunisia, the government is likely to fight hard to retain control.
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi remains defiant, urging loyalists to “get ready for the fight” to liberate the country from “traitors and from NATO.” Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim rejected the rebels’ claims to have seized up to 70% of Zawiyah, saying that the town is “completely under our control. A very small group of rebels tried to enter from the south... but they were stopped easily by our armed forces.”
A number of reports suggest that Gaddafi’s representatives are holding talks with the rebels in Tunisia. UN special envoy Abdul Ilah al-Khatib, charged with brokering peace between the two sides, has arrived in Tunis. He told AFP that negotiations would take place in a hotel, although the UN would not confirm who would be present. Gaddafi’s government has dismissed reports that talks are taking place.
Meanwhile, Libyan Interior Minister Nasser al-Mabruk has arrived in Cairo with nine members of his family, reportedly on a holiday, say Cairo officials. Speculation is rife that al-Mabruk, who is understood to have been close to Gaddafi, has defected.